Lukashenko: Belarus 'revolution' failed

Belarus' authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko, declared the overwhelming winner of weekend elections, said today that his opponents had failed to topple him in a foreign-backed "revolution".

International observers said the vote fell short of democratic standards; Europe's main human rights organisation described it as a "farce;" and the United States called for another election.

Lukashenko's main opponent refused to accept the outcome, branding the long-time leader an "illegal, illegitimate president".

Alexander Milinkevich called for larger crowds to turn out for a rally this evening in central Minsk, signalling a bid to gather a growing street presence for protests like those that brought opposition leaders to power in other ex-Soviet republics.

Busloads of riot police streamed into an area of the Belarusian capital where the rally was planned.

The forces in helmets and camouflage uniforms disembarked from eight buses on a side-street near Oktyabrskaya Square, jog-trotted into neighbourhood courtyards and prevented pedestrians from walking toward the square.

The show of strength was in sharp contrast to the previous evening, when police had only a small and unobtrusive presence at a rally of more than 10,000 people denouncing the results.

Lukashenko has vowed not to allow any attempt to create a mass uprising like those in Ukraine, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan that helped bring opposition leaders to power over the past two years.

The chief electoral official said today that Lukashenko, who has ruled with an iron fist since 1994, won a "convincing victory" with 82.6% of the votes - a number Milinkevich called "monstrously inflated".

"In Belarus, we did not have an election but an unconstitutional seizure of power," said Milinkevich, who official results said won 6%. He repeated his demand for a new vote.

The opposition leader's appeal was backed by the United States. White House press secretary Scott McClellan said the election was flawed by a "climate of fear," and hinted that penalties such as travel restrictions "are things we will look at".

"We support the call for a new election," McClellan told reporters on Air Force One as US President George Bush flew to Ohio for a speech.

"The United States will continue to stand with the people of Belarus."

By contrast, Russian President Vladimir Putin today congratulated Lukashenko on winning re-election and said the vote results would help strengthen the alliance of the two ex-Soviet nations.

Putin said in a telegram to Lukashenko that the vote "highlighted voters' trust in your course aimed at strengthening the welfare of the Belarusian people," the Kremlin said in a statement.

Lukashenko scorned the opposition, calling the election "honest and democratic" and saying voters had shown "who's the boss" in Belarus.

"The revolution that was talked abot so much : has failed," he told a nationally televised news conference.

"You have seen our opposition, and if you are reasonable people you have been convinced that it's worthless," Lukashenko said.

He repeated his allegations that the opposition is backed by Western forces plotting to bring him down.

In a show of defiance not seen in Belarus in years, thousands of people massed in Oktyabrskaya Square after the polls closed Sunday night, ignoring a ban on election day rallies.

Authorities made no move to disperse protesters Sunday, but busloads of riot police stood by on a nearby street.

Lukashenko called on the opposition to halt protests, saying the vote showed that he has overwhelming support. "We must accept the decision of the people," he said.

He asserted that yesterday's protest leaders were in the pay of Western ambassadors and claimed there was no crackdown because the opposition is weak.

"Who was there to fight with? Nobody, understand? That's why we gave them the opportunity to show themselves, even though it was illegal."

Western countries have called Lukashenko Europe's last dictator, and sharply criticised the election campaign.

The observer mission from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe said Monday that the election did not meet standards for a free and fair vote.

"Arbitrary use of state power and widespread detentions showed a disregard for the basic rights of freedom of assembly, association and expression," the OSCE mission said.

Austrian Foreign Minister Ursula Plassnik, whose country holds the EU's rotating presidency, said Monday that the opposition "was systematically intimidated" during the campaign, and the EU threatened diplomatic and financial sanctions against Belarus' leaders.

The Council of Europe, Europe's main human rights organisation, called the election "a farce".

Lukashenko said he was "not afraid of further isolation," adding: "If the EU wants problems here, it will have them."