Election Observers Detained in Belarus


Associated Press Writer

MINSK, Belarus (AP) - Nine Georgian lawmakers who were to join an international monitoring mission during this weekend's presidential elections were detained at the Belarusian capital's airport, and an official said Friday they would be sent back to Georgia.

A spokesman for the Belarusian border guard forces, Vasily Kiptenko, said the nine were detained on Thursday because ``they were not desirable on our territory,'' but declined to elaborate.

The detentions came on the same day the head of the Belarusian KGB accused a Georgian lawmaker and employees of Georgian embassies in neighboring Lithuania and Ukraine of plotting subversive actions during Sunday's vote, in which authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko seeks a third term.

A statement from the Georgian Foreign Ministry said the detention ``lays bare again the Belarus government's undisguised decision to act in defiance of the universally recognized principles of democracy and transparency in elections.''

The Georgians were to be part of the election-monitoring mission led by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. A spokesman for the OSCE's Parliamentary Assembly, Andreas Baker, said assembly officials had been in touch with the Belarusian Foreign Ministry over the detentions.

Belarusian officials have repeatedly alleged that the opposition, with Western backing, aims to mount massive protests after the election, like those in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan - also ex-Soviet states - that helped bring opposition figures to power over the past two years.

The government has banned demonstrations on election day and KGB chief Stepan Sukhorenko said Thursday that any protesters who take to the streets could be subject to terrorism charges.

Opposition candidates have been given little coverage - and much of that dismissive - in state-controlled media, and Belarus' few independent newspapers are under increasing pressure.

On Thursday, hundreds of thousands of copies of the independent newspaper Tovarishch (Comrade) were seized by KGB agents and security police in Minsk, said the newspaper's editor, Sergei Vaznyak.

``There is general hysteria in the country. The people are being prevented from making a conscious choice,'' said Vaznyak, who also is press secretary for Alexander Milinkevich, the main opposition candidate.

Western countries are lobbing almost-daily criticism against Belarusian authorities for a repressive pre-election climate.

The European Parliament and the U.S. House of Representatives on Thursday issued a joint letter to the people of Belarus saying ``we are deeply concerned about the violations of democratic principles in the election campaign ... we condemn the ongoing erosion of freedom by the Belarusian government and by the current president and presidential candidate Alexander Lukashenko.''

Lukashenko, post-Soviet Belarus' only president, has increasingly tightened his grip on the country since taking office in 1994.