AGENCIES , MINSK AND VIENNA
Belarus' police yesterday banned public gatherings by anti-government groups on election day, as crackdowns on the country's political opposition continued.
Law enforcers will use "all legal methods" to break up demonstrations on March 19, Interior Minister Vladimir Naumov said.
Opponents of Belarus' authoritarian President Aleksander Lukashenko had been planning mass protests on the day of the vote, whose result, they say, already has been fixed.
"We will give them 10 to 15 minutes to disperse, and if they do not, we will use force," Naumov said.
The ban came one day after an opposition leader was detained for several hours when he attempted to confront Lukashenko at a political convention in Minsk, police said.
Alexander Kozulin, leader of the Social Democratic party and one of four candidates in the election, said he was held in a police station and released later in the day.
Witnesses said Kozulin, a former dean of Minsk university, was beaten up after organizers refused to register him when he arrived at the Congress of People's Deputies demanding to be let in.
Kozulin said he tried to attend the conference because ``I wanted to tell the truth about the dictatorship we live in.''
Prosecutors said Kozulin was under investigation for "hooliganism," which is punishable by up to 15 days in prison, and that he could incur an additional penalty for smashing a portrait of Lukashenko.
The detention set off alarm bells in Western capitals.
The US administration urged Lukashenko's hardline regime to allow free elections or face consequences.
"We have indicated to them that should there be incidents like there were today, there will be consequences," David Kramer, deputy assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, told reporters on Thursday.
"We are paying very close attention to those who are involved in activities that promote either fraudulent elections or promote violence," Kramer said.
The EU's presidency yesterday expressed "deep concern" over Kozulin's arrest and urged the country to guarantee the personal safety of all those taking part in the election.
"The EU expects Belarus to ... assure a free, transparent and fair election process, safeguarding in particular the right of assembly and freedom of expression," the EU said in a statement from Austria, which currently holds the presidency of the 25-nation bloc.
At the convention center on Thursday, Lukashenko railed against what he labeled outside interference.
"If we give up our country without fighting, our descendants will never forgive us," said Lukashenko, who is widely favored to win the election.
He vowed to put down any attempts at an "orange revolution" similar to the popular street demonstrations that brought pro-Western President Viktor Yushchenko to power in Ukraine.
In front of 2,000 people, including many government officials and military personnel, Lukashenko accused the US and the EU of financing the opposition.
"They don't have any lessons to teach us in terms of human rights. They've covered the Middle East, Afghanistan, Iraq, Yugoslavia in blood. People are dying in their millions," Lukashenko said.
"They say: we're going to democratize Belarus. Democratize yourselves first!" said Lukashenko, who organized a controversial referendum in 2004 to enable him to be re-elected in perpetuity.