Rally defies presidential threat

By Olena Horodetska in Minsk

THOUSANDS of Belarussians staged the largest opposition rally in years overnight on the eve of an election, with President Alexander Lukashenko threatening to "wring the necks" of protesters disturbing the peace.

Mr Lukashenko, accused in the West of flagrant human rights violations in 12 years in power, is all but certain to easily defeat three challengers, two from the small liberal opposition.

Main opposition hopeful Alexander Milinkevich accuses Mr Lukashenko of preparing to rig the vote. The EY, which has sanctions in place against top Belarussian officials, expressed concern over a "lack of freedom".

About 6000 young people massed on the outskirts of Minsk for a rock concert, waving the EU flag and the traditional red-and-white national colours banned by Mr Lukashenko. Those in attendance chanted "Freedom!" and "Long Live Belarus!"

Mr Milinkevich told supporters to take to the streets after the polls closed, as did Ukrainians did in the 2004 "Orange Revolution", to keep the count honest despite official warnings that public order violations would be treated as terrorism.

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

Under a banner with red letters reading "For Freedom", dozens of musicians backed the calls for peaceful protest.

Shopkeepers and waiters half-whispered the phrase "come to the square" to passers-by on the streets of the capital, Minsk, which were brimming with police and soldiers.

Anonymous leaflets called for revolution, and mobile phones received competing text messages alternately encouraging protests or warning people against falling victim to bloodshed.

"We are going there with flowers, peacefully. We are against violence. We are going to the square to say no to falsification," Mr Milinkevich told a small morning rally.

Mr Lukashenko remains highly popular, particularly among the elderly and those outside the capital. He tells traditionally reserved Belarussians that his policies have ensured stability and a degree of prosperity not seen in nearby ex-Soviet states.

Accused by the West of rigging polls since the mid-1990s, he has vowed to crush any attempt at mass protests, like those that unseated Moscow-backed establishments in Georgia and Ukraine.

On Friday, he vowed to "wring the necks" of rivals who dared to violate public order.

European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso warned Mr Lukashenko that more harassment of the opposition would further damage Belarus's ties with the EU, which has already imposed a travel ban on Mr Lukashenko and other top officials.

"We are very concerned about some developments that we have seen recently, namely the lack of freedom, the harassment of the leaders of the opposition and other very negative developments," he said during a visit to Moscow.

Dozens of opposition activists have been fined and sentenced to short jail terms for public order offences. International observers and reporters have been denied entry or deported.

Lidyia Yermoshina, head of the Central Electoral Commission, said campaigning was fair and equal for all candidates and that attempts to pressure Mr Lukashenko would backfire.

"I think our people will unite even more as a result and demonstrate their best quality - love of their motherland," the state news agency BelTA quoted her as telling international observers.

She said about 20 per cent of voters had already cast ballots during advance voting - a practice denounced by the opposition as a vehicle for fraud.

Polls during the campaign say Mr Lukashenko would probably win a vote without cheating and opposition chances remained slim.