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 Post subject: Belarus braces for post-poll snipers
PostPosted: Mon Mar 20, 2006 3:17 am 
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Location: South Australia
Belarus braces for post-poll snipers
Mark Franchetti
Minsk
March 20, 2006


THE authoritarian leader of Belarus has ordered snipers to take up positions around the central square in Minsk, the capital, where thousands of opposition demonstrators are expected to gather overnight to protest at his expected victory in the presidential elections.

Alexander Lukashenko, 51, who is certain to win a third term amid widespread claims of poll-rigging, has put the special forces unit known as the Almaz (diamond) on alert. The unit is suspected of involvement in the disappearance of some of his fiercest critics.

Opposition sources in the former Soviet republic said they had received reports that members of the Vitebsk division, a top paratroop unit, had been moved to the outskirts of Minsk from their base 300km away.

The deployment of snipers -- revealed in a leaked official memo -- has raised opposition fears that Mr Lukashenko is ready to use force to prevent a repetition of Ukraine's orange revolution, which brought Viktor Yushchenko, the pro-Western candidate, to power in the place of a Russian-backed rival.

Opposition sources expect an announcement overnight that Mr Lukashenko has received 75-80 per cent of the popular vote. But they claim that if the election had been fair he would have won less than 50 per cent, obliging him to take part in a second round run-off.

"We have made it clear many times -- our protest will be peaceful and we will carry flowers," said Alexander Milinkevich, 58, a former physics professor who is one of the two opposition candidates.

"But there is little doubt Lukashenko is capable of ordering his troops to fire at a peaceful crowd. He will do anything to stay in power."

Mr Milinkevich and Alexander Kozulin, the other opposition candidate, hope the rally in October Square will prompt a repetition of events in Ukraine, where hundreds of thousands of demonstrators achieved a peaceful change of regime. But few observers share their optimism.

Mr Lukashenko, who has ruled his impoverished country of 10million since 1994, issued a decree last year giving himself the power to order troops to fire on civilians. He looks unlikely to give up without a fight.

In what many saw as a dress rehearsal for the opposition demonstration, snipers were positioned around the square for the first time last month during a mass gathering of regional politicians loyal to his regime.

The election campaign has been anything but fair. Dozens of opposition leaders and youth activists critical of the President -- a moustachioed former prison guard and communist collective farm boss -- have been harassed, beaten and arrested by police.

Two students were sentenced to six years' jail for writing anti-Lukashenko graffiti, while police assaulted Mr Kozulin and several of his supporters.

At an opposition rally on Minsk's outskirts last week, the two front rows were filled by burly security services men with shaved heads and leather jackets. They were the only ones not to clap the speakers.

To prevent people joining the protests, services to Minsk train stations and bus stops around October Square were suspended yesterday. Tens of thousands of police officers are expected to seal off the streets leading to the square overnight.

Mr Lukashenko's victory is certain to raise tensions between the West, which has imposed sanctions against Belarus, and Moscow, which under President Vladimir Putin has continued to support the regime.

Raising the stakes further, Stepan Sukhorenko, head of the Belarus KGB -- which has retained its Soviet-era name and ruthless methods -- has warned that if the demonstration turns violent, participants could be charged with terrorism, which is punishable by death.

"We will not allow power to be seized under the guise of presidential elections," Mr Sukhorenko told a news conference at which KGB agents photographed every Belarussian journalist who asked a question.

Mr Sukhorenko claimed to have uncovered an international plot to provoke a coup by planting bombs in Minsk during the elections, and warned that candidates running against the President could be charged with illegal activities after the election.

The opposition appears undaunted. "Lukashenko has plenty of thugs at his service who will follow his orders against the opposition, but we won't be intimidated," said a youth leader. "It's time to show we are not in the 1930s under Stalin."

The Sunday Times


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