Belarus Vows to Bar Rally During Vote

The Belarus interior minister warned the opposition Friday that authorities would break up any attempts to rally on the day of presidential elections.

"We will instruct the participants to disperse, and if they don't do so within 10-15 minutes, we will use all means under the law," Interior Minister Vladimir Naumov said on national television.

President Alexander Lukashenko, who has ruled his isolated former Soviet nation with an iron hand since 1994, is expected to win another term in the March 19 elections.

Over the past dozen years has quashed dissent and maintained his grip on power through votes dismissed as illegitimate by his opponents and Western governments that have dubbed him Europe's last dictator.

Opposition leader Alexander Milinkevich - the main presidential challenger to Lukashenko - has vowed mass protests in case of election fraud.

Government security agents beat and detained an opposition presidential candidate for several hours on Thursday, as human rights campaigners reported that 60 opposition members had been rounded up.

"The first shots have already been heard, a total 'cleanup' of the opposition has begun," said the head of the Vyasna human rights center, Ales Byalyatsky.

The United States strongly condemned the beating and warned that Belarus would face consequences if this month's elections were not free and fair.

Prosecutors on Friday opened a criminal case against Alexander Kozulin, the opposition candidate who was beaten and detained after he tried to enter a conference chaired by Lukashenko.

Kozulin faces up to five years for hooliganism for breaking a portrait of the president at the police station where he was being held and for scuffling with police as he tried to hold a news conference at the state press center, the prosecutor's office said.