Nine Georgian election observers detained at the Belarusian capital's airport as pre-vote tensions mount

Minsk, 17 March 2006 (Associated Press - website) - Nine Georgian lawmakers who were to join an international monitoring mission during this weekend's presidential elections in Belarus 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 Thursday because but declined to elaborate. Also Friday, the Belarusian KGB said it had arrested a Georgian citizen on suspicion of funding the opposition. He was detained KGB spokesman Valery Nadtochayev said.

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.

Lukashenko suggested that the Georgians had been in contact with his opponents, and vowed swift action against any foreigner trying to sow chaos. he said in a rambling statement carried by the state news agency Belta. he said.

The Central Election Commission, meanwhile, said the KGB had obtained falsified vote-count protocols showing opposition candidate Alexander Milinkevich receiving 51 percent of the votes and Lukashenko 37 percent. The documents bore a forgery of elections commission head Lidiya Yermoshina's signature, and allegedly were to be sent to the Ukrainian office of the U.S. National Democratic Institute, the state news agency Belta reported, citing the election commission. A man who identified himself only as Yermoshina's secretary confirmed the report to The Associated Press.

The Georgian Foreign Ministry said in a statement that the observers' detention The Georgian lawmakers were to have been 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, such as 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 warned Thursday that any protesters who took to the streets on Sunday could be subject to terrorism charges.

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

On Thursday, hundreds of thousands of copies of the independent newspaper Tovarishch (Comrade) were seized by security agents in Minsk, said the newspaper's editor, Sergei Vaznyak. said Vaznyak, who also is press secretary for Milinkevich, the main opposition candidate. Western countries are lobbing almost-daily criticism against Belarusian authorities for a repressive pre-election climate.

The European Union on Friday condemned a warning from Belarus' foreign minister that the opposition and its foreign supporters would bear responsibility for any election violence. EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana said the Belarusian authorities were responsible for public safety, and warned that any violence against peaceful protests

The European Parliament and the U.S. House of Representatives issued a joint letter to the people of Belarus on Thursday, expressing deep concern about and condemning by Lukashenko and is government.

Lukashenko has increasingly tightened his grip on the country since taking office in 1994. However, he is popular with many Belarusians because of the country's improving economy.

A poll by the Russian-based VTsIOM organization reported 60-percent support for Lukashenko and about 11 percent for Milinkevich among the 1,100 people surveyed March 6-12. The poll reported a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.