Belarus opposition makes final bid for a free election

MINSK, Reuters

The Belarussian opposition, reaching the last stage of its near-hopeless attempt to unseat President Alexander Lukashenko, urged supporters Saturday to mass in the streets to ensure a free election.

Opposition challenger Alexander Milinkevich accused Lukashenko of preparing to rig Sunday's presidential vote while the European Union, which has sanctions against top Belarus officials, expressed concern over a "lack of freedom".

In words reminiscent of the 2004 revolution in neighboring Ukraine, Milinkevich told a small rally of supporters to take to the streets after the polls closed, despite official warnings that violations of public order would be treated as terrorism.

"I had expected the campaign to be unfair and dishonest but I had not expected it to be so outrageous. We want to tell the truth about it. I invite you to come to the square," he told about 200 pensioners and students.

Shopkeepers and waiters half-whispered the phrase "come to the square" to passersby on the streets of the capital, Minsk, which were full of police and soldiers.

Anonymous leaflets called for revolution, and mobile phones received competing text messages alternately encouraging protests or warning people against falling victim to bloodshed.

"We are going there with flowers, peacefully. We are against violence. We are going to the square to say no to falsification," said Milinkevich.

Opposition activists planned a concert for later in the day.

Lukashenko, accused by the opposition and the West of oppressing rivals and rigging polls since the mid-1990s, is all but certain to win against three challengers on Sunday.

He vows to crush any upheaval like the post election protests that unseated the Moscow-backed establishments in Georgia and Ukraine and to "wring the necks" of rivals who dare to violate public order.

European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso warned Lukashenko that more harassment of the opposition would further damage Belarus' ties with the European Union, which has already imposed a travel ban on Lukashenko and other top officials.

"We are very concerned about some developments that we have seen recently, namely the lack of freedom, the harassment of the leaders of the opposition and other very negative developments," he told reporters during a visit to Moscow.