Opposition arrests as election looms

MINSK - A top member of the Opposition was briefly detained and fined yesterday, just over a week before President Alexander Lukashenko's bid for re-election.

Anatoly Lebedko, a veteran activist of Belarus' small liberal Opposition, is a senior figure in independent candidate Alexander Milinkevich's bid to unseat the president after 12 years in office.

Lebedko said he had been taken in for questioning in Mogilyov, a town in eastern Belarus, on allegations of staging an illegal rally.

"I was simply meeting voters during the campaign. As local authorities had refused to give us a hall, we held the meeting in the street. There were about 150-200 people," he said.

"After it was over, police ordered me to the station where I was accused of holding an illegal rally. This is, of course, absurd. Electoral law sets down the format for rallies and no approval is needed."

Lebdedko's spokesman Yekaterina Tkachenko, later said a court had imposed a fine equivalent to $700 ($1079) and released him.

Milinkevich was chosen last year as the sole candidate from the Opposition to take on Lukashenko on March 19.

But a second Opposition hopeful, Alexander Kozulin, ex-rector of Belarussian State University, is also running.

Popular among academics, Kozulin was beaten by plainclothes officers last week and detained for several hours.

He is being charged with breaking a portrait of the President and staging an unauthorised news conference.

State television, under tight central control, rarely refers to either candidate by name, though both have addressed voters during television spots provided under electoral law.