Belarus's Lukashenko favoured to win re-election

By Olena Horodetska

MINSK (Reuters) - President Alexander Lukashenko, admired by many of his countrymen but accused in the West of ignoring human rights, seeks re-election on Sunday against liberal rivals who vow to contest any attempt to rig the count.

Lukashenko disdainfully says his rivals are Western-funded troublemakers and has vowed to "wring the necks" of anyone violating public order. His security service, called the KGB as in Soviet times, says protests will be seen as "terrorism".

Lukashenko is all but certain to defeat his challengers. Two of the three, from the liberal opposition, have asked supporters to mass in central Minsk when polls close, as protesters against election fraud did in Ukraine's 2004 "Orange Revolution".

Just over 7 million people may cast ballots in the ex-Soviet state lying between Russia and European Union member Poland. Polls open from 0600 GMT to 1800 GMT and a result is expected late in the evening on early on Monday.

Most opposition groups back Alexander Milinkevich, whose staff braved arrest and fines to stage well-attended rallies.

More than 6,000 mainly young people thronged a rock concert on the eve of the vote, the largest such event in many years.

"Today we should prove with our actions that we are fighting for freedom," Milinkevich told students, many sporting the blue ribbons adopted by the opposition.

Hours before polling stations opened, fleets of trucks ferried police and soldiers through the city centre.

Tightly controlled state television repeated KGB warnings and commentators praised Belarus's economic results. A presenter told voters to stay home on Sunday evening to avoid unrest.

In a televised address on Friday, Lukashenko said the poll "will be no less fair and open than in other countries being held up to us as an example".

He added: "I guarantee there will be no coup in our country, no violent take-over of buildings, no blocking of streets and squares".

The United States and the European Union have vowed to impose more sanctions on Belarus if independent observers say the vote is unfair.

Lukashenko remains popular, especially among the elderly and outside the capital. He tells voters he has ensured stability and a degree of prosperity unknown in other ex-Soviet states.

Accused by the West of rigging polls since the mid-1990s, he has said he will tolerate no protests, like those that unseated Moscow-backed establishments in Georgia and Ukraine.

Dozens of opposition activists have been fined and sentenced to short jail terms for public order offences.

Top election official Lidyia Yermoshina said campaigning was fair for all. She reported a 20 percent turnout in the advance poll, denounced by the opposition as a vehicle for vote-rigging.

Also running in opposition colours is Alexander Kozulin, an academic beaten and held for a time after trying to gate-crash a meeting chaired by Lukashenko during the campaign.

The fourth candidate, parliamentarian Sergei Gaidukevich, is an ally of the president who ran against him in 2001.