Threat to crush rallies as Belarusians cast votes

MINSK: Belarus's state security has warned it will crush protests against President Alexander Lukashenko, heightening tension before his expected re-election in tomorrow's poll that the West seems sure to denounce as rigged.

The international isolation of the former Soviet state, which Mr Lukashenko has run with an iron hand for 12 years, was underscored when the European Union said it was ready to extend visa bans on more Belarus officials if the poll was fraudulent.

The EU, like the US, condemns what it says are gross violations of human rights in Belarus under Mr Lukashenko, who pledges to do all he can to avert any pro-Western revolutions, like those seen in Ukraine and Georgia, to topple him. Stepan Sukhorenko, the head of the state security service, which retains its Soviet-era acronym KGB, said on Thursday that protests against Mr Lukashenko were a screen for a coup and would be treated as "terrorism".

The main opposition challenger, Alexander Milinkevich, has urged supporters to gather peacefully by polling stations to prevent vote-rigging.

A rally was planned in Minsk for yesterday. Mr Milinkevich's campaign manager, Sergei Kalyakin, dismissed Mr Sukhorenko's warning. "Our fear is that authorities will make provocative moves to justify using force against peaceful demonstrators," he said.