Belarus opposition plotting coup: state security

By Andrei Makhovsky

MINSK (Reuters) - Belarus's security chief said on Wednesday his agency had uncovered an opposition plot to mount a violent coup in the days after this month's presidential election.

Strongman President Alexander Lukashenko, described by Washington as running the last dictatorship in Europe, is expected to cruise to victory in the March 19 poll.

The coup plot allegation was made a day before an opposition rally in the capital that, opposition politicians said, may be broken up by police.

Stepan Sukhorenko, head of Belarus' KGB state security agency, said opposition leaders were planning to set off an explosion at one of their own protests after the election, and then blame the authorities for the resulting bloodshed,

"After that (they will) start seizing official buildings and stations and blocking railway lines with the aim of completely paralyzing the functioning of the state," Sukhorenko told a news conference.

The authorities in Belarus have accused the opposition of plotting a coup several times before, most recently late last year. But they have not followed up the allegations or prosecuted anyone over the alleged plots.

There was no immediate response from the opposition to Sukhorenko's allegations.

Lukashenko has vowed to cut short any upheaval like rallies which helped unseat governments in Georgia and Ukraine in the aftermath of disputed elections.

The United States and European Union accuse Lukashenko of crushing dissent and muzzling the media. They have suggested they may toughen sanctions on him if -- as his critics predict -- the presidential vote proves neither free nor fair.


Rival candidate Alexander Milinkevich, the main challenger from the opposition, called the pre-election rally for Thursday without securing police permission. In the past, police wielding truncheons have been sent in to disperse such protests.

"How the authorities act tomorrow will be a litmus test for us," Milinkevich told a news conference. "If they use force, we reserve the right to take appropriate measures."

He gave no explanation of what these measures might be.

"We don't want to respond by using force. But there are ways to oblige the authorities to act according to the law," he said. "They are not even trying to imitate an honest election."

The head of Belarus's Central Election Commission, Lidiya Yermoshina, has called the planned rally a "provocative act" and said security forces were entitled to use force. Milinkevich, she said, would bear full responsibility for what might occur.

Lukashenko, in power since 1994, remains popular, particularly outside Minsk. He tells voters he has spared them the turmoil of other ex-Soviet states.

The president, due to address a gathering dubbed the "Belarussian National Congress" on Thursday, says he will win without cheating and if not, go into retirement.

Opposition rallies attract small crowds in Belarus, with activists discouraged by tight control of politics and recent laws setting down stiff penalties for illegal assembly.

National sentiment in the country sandwiched between Russia and Poland is anyway less marked than in either Georgia or Ukraine -- sites of mass protests against election fraud.

Milinkevich says he will not incite people to protest, but has not ruled out rallies if voters feel the election is rigged.

He told reporters he wanted supporters to mass outside the election commission headquarters after polls closed -- a tactic used by liberal Viktor Yushchenko in Ukraine's 2004 "Orange Revolution" that led to his election.

Belarussian authorities last week criticized a top U.S. diplomat who said the ex-Soviet state's citizens had a right to protest if they chose.

Also running in opposition colors is Alexander Kozulin, ex-rector of Belarussian state university. The fourth runner is an ally of the president who competed against him in 2001.