Belarus vote monitors could be removed, threatens Lukashenko (Roundup)

Minsk - Incumbent President Aleksander Lukashenko threatened independent vote monitors with possible 'removal by force' on Friday, as Belarus counted down to a presidential election.

'They (independent monitors) are there to watch the process, not to give instructions,' Lukashenko said in comments aired by the state-controlled Bel-1 television. 'But some of these people seem to think they are in charge.'

'If any of them (election monitors) breaks our law ... police at the polling sites will remove them by force ... that is the signal I would like to send them.'

The authoritarian Lukashenko - once dubbed Europe's last dictator - is widely considered a sure-fire winner in the upcoming Sunday vote. His nine challengers have faced repression by police and near total bans to campaign advertising.

In response, Germany's government Friday reiterated a European Union demand for this weekend's elections to be free and fair.

'We expect free and fair elections, with an open result, and an evaluation of the results in line with international standards,' said Christoph Steegmans, a spokesman for German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Only that kind of cooperation would lead Germany to lobby the EU to free up promised aid money for Belarus.

Some 1,000 international and 5,000 domestic vote monitors are registered to observe polling, according to the Belta news agency.

Lukashenko in recent weeks has loosened somewhat previously tight barriers to independent election monitoring in a bid to improve relations with European Union nations, whose governments have called for a free and fair vote.

For the first time, presidential candidates were allowed to debate in a live television event - although Lukashenko did not participate.

But Lukashenko made clear in comments to the Belapan news agency he was uncomfortable even with the limited increases in transparency, saying 'we have done all we can ... and this is our election to run, we are not going to surrender our sovereignty to someone else.'

Lukashenko's opponents have accused him of using the country's powerful police and security services to intimidate the opposition, and of intending vote fraud by manipulating ballots cast early.

Lukashenko has denied the allegations. Slightly more than 11.7 per cent of all registered voters had already cast ballots by Wednesday evening, according to data compiled by the Central Election Commission.

The Belapan news agency on Thursday reported a column of anti-riot troops and armored vehicles was en route to Minsk, but the streets of the Belarusian capital were quiet on Friday.

A mass demonstration planned in central Minsk by opposition leaders for Sunday evening has not received government sanction, and will be broken up by force if necessary, Lukashenko warned earlier this week.


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