White House report alleges Belarus has sold arms to Iran

By Adrian Blomfield in Minsk

Belarus moved closer to international isolation yesterday after the White House submitted a largely classified report to Congress accusing the country's president of illegally selling weapons to Iran.

The report, prepared on the eve of an election in Belarus widely denounced as a sham, comes amid condemnation of a brutal crackdown on his opponents by President Alexander Lukashenko, labelled Europe's last dictator by the Bush administration. According to United States officials, the report accuses the 51-year-old president of turning himself into "one of the richest men in the former Soviet Union", through arms sales to rogue regimes and African rebel outfits.

"We spelt out some of the concerns when it comes to Belarus," said a White House spokesman, Scott McClellan, confirming the existence of the report. "This is one country in a Europe that is free and at peace that has moved in the opposite direction of freedom and peace."

Western diplomats say that Belarus earns more than ?1.14 billion annually in weapons sales, much of which goes into a secret fund controlled directly by the president.

An official, who read the report, says it alleges that the Belarussian government sold arms, dual-use items, and even components that could be used in weapons of mass destruction, to Iran.

The report asserts that military hardware was also sold to the Sudanese government, which has waged a brutal campaign against rebels in the Darfur region, that has forced more than a million people to flee their homes.

The report appears to be the first step towards the imposition of targeted sanctions, likely to take the form of travel bans and an asset freeze, by the US on Mr Lukashenko and his cronies.

Britain and the European Union have signalled their intention to impose penalties should today's poll prove to be rigged.

Western diplomats say most of the cheating has already taken place, with students and other individuals known to harbour opposition sympathies being forced to vote earlier this week - a practice allowed under Belarussian law.

"They were made to vote before European observers arrived to monitor the poll," said a senior Western diplomat. "After they voted, their ballots will be checked and replaced with votes for Lukashenko. What we're seeing now is a charade of a free and fair election."

Mr Lukashenko, a former collective farm boss, seems unmoved by the condemnation. As the head of the only ex-Soviet state in Europe not to turn westwards, he is desperate to ensure there is no repeat of the revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine between 2003 and 2005, where street protests toppled similarly autocratic regimes.

Last week his secret police, which has retained its Soviet-era KGB acronym, said that anyone participating in a planned opposition protest at a square in central Minsk this evening would be arrested as a terrorist, and could face the death penalty.

The KGB also claims that the opposition is planning to detonate bombs among the crowd as a precursor to launching a coup.

Yesterday, every Belarussian with a mobile telephone was sent a text message that said: "Provocateurs are planning bloodshed in the square. Watch out for your life and health." The warnings are in keeping with the twin pillars of Mr Lukashenko's style of government: fear and disinformation.

He has brought the media under state control, save for a few newspapers, closed pressure groups, and arrested hundreds of opposition supporters over the course of the campaign.

Posters for Mr Lukashenko's main challenger, Alexander Milinkevich, are ripped down as soon as they are put up, while the president, on television almost every hour of every day, is not officially bothering to campaign.