Tension in Belarus as voting starts

Against a backdrop of possible protests and warnings of a crackdown by the authorities early voting is taking place in Belarus's presidential election. President Alexander Lukashenko, who has been in power since 1994, is largely expected to win by a big majority. But the opposition, whose leading candidate is Alexander Milinkevich, claims the election will be rigged. He has called for voters to gather peacefully at polling stations to ensure a fair ballot.

The West is also deeply sceptical. Observers from the European Parliament have been refused visas by Belarusian authorities after the Strasbourg chamber questioned the outcome of previous elections in the former Soviet state. Other international monitors will be there for Sunday's main vote.

Underlining the tension in the country, the head of the KGB security service warned that protests could be treated as "terrorism". He said peaceful demonstrations could be used as a screen to launch a violent coup. Earlier security officials put on display seized items they claimed were evidence of a plot against the government.

Lukashenko has been accused by the West and opponents of crushing human rights but, according to polls, he remains popular in parts of the country outside the capital, Minsk.