EU threatens sanctions over 'flawed' Belarus poll

By Andrew Osborn

MINSK - The Belarus government faces fresh sanctions and further international isolation after European election monitors delivered a devastating critique of yesterday's elections.

The poll was ostensibly won by Aleksander Lukashenko, the incumbent President of the former Soviet republic, a man described by Washington as Europe's last dictator.

Official results gave Mr Lukashenko, who has been in power since 1994, 82.6 per cent of the vote.

His closest rival, the opposition leader Aleksander Milinkevic, apparently received just 6 per cent.

Mr Milinkevic, a softly spoken former academic, claimed the result had been rigged and said the opposition would try to annul the result through a series of legal challenges to force a re-run.

"He is not the legitimate president. He does not have the right to rule," he told reporters.

The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), which fielded more than 500 observers, concluded separately that the election was neither free nor fair.

It complained that the Belarussian KGB had created a "climate of intimidation" on the eve of the poll by associating opposition activists with terrorists.

It said that opposition candidates were in effect prevented from campaigning, that activists were harassed, physically beaten and jailed, that the state media practically ignored the opposition and that undue pressure and threats were applied to state employees to get them to back Mr Lukashenko.

"The right to freedom of association and freedom of assembly was ... largely disregarded," Alcee Hastings, president of the Parliamentary Assembly of the OSCE, said.

"There was a pattern of intimidation and suppression of independent voices."

European foreign ministers ordered EU diplomats in Minsk to draw up a new list of Belarussian officials who could be subject to a visa ban, likely to be formalised next month.

But the scope of the sanctions remained unclear with no decision on whether to extend them to Mr Lukashenko, or whether to target Belarussian companies linked to the government.

At present six officials from Belarus are on the EU's visa ban list.

Washington is likely to consider similar "soft" sanctions and called for new elections.

"The United States does not accept the results of the election," said the White House spokesman Scott McClellan.

The opposition said it would try to rally in Minsk for a second successive night but complained that it needed more people to attend.

Its first rally, attracted around 10,000 people who chanted slogans in the biting cold.

But the event appeared disorganised with Mr Milinkevic struggling to make himself heard over a poor sound system and by midnight the streets were deserted.