Observers say phones cut, as Lukashenko heads for victory (2nd Lead)

Minsk - Election monitors in Sunday's Belarus presidential election claimed their phones had been cut off, as the ex-Soviet state went to the polls in an contest widely expected to see the authoritarian incumbent President Aleksander Lukashenko re-elected for a record fourth term.

By midday (1000 GMT), some 32 per cent of voters had cast their ballots, according to data from the Central Election Commission, with voting itself appearing to go smoothly.

However, members of the observation group For Fair Elections alleged authorities on Sunday cut off office and telephone access in retaliation for giving interviews to western media.

'Our phones just stopped working after we talked with Voice of America,' said Sergei Kaliakin, a For Fair Elections spokesman.

More than 1,000 international observers led by a 490-member delegation from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe were Belarus to monitor the vote. More than 15,000 Belarusian vote monitors were on hand as well.

Lukashenko, a former collective farm boss, has vowed he would defeat his nine challengers without tampering with the electoral process.

But his critics have accused him of ordering police to arrest opposition activists and forcing state-controlled media to support him.

'If they (Belarus' opposition) have been complaining about falsification for six months prior to the election, it means they already knew they would lose,' Lukashenko said in comments to Interfax.

Opposition leaders have vowed to go ahead with Sunday evening demonstrations against electoral fraud and Lukashenko's expected victory.

Police in the capital Minsk and outlying cities detained more than a dozen opposition activists on the eve of the election and at least four more on election day, according to independent news reports.

Vitaliy Rymashevskiy, a campaign worker for the opposition candidate Yuriy Klimovich said police in the city of Gomel arrested him and charged him for swearing in public.

He denied the charge, claiming his detention was part of a government intimidation campaign, according to a Belapan report.

Pro-democracy groups have alleged that Lukashenko's government in the run-up to voting day pushed early ballot casting, which took place outside the observation of monitors, with the intention of falsifying the Sunday ballot counts.

Almost one in four Belarusians had cast early ballots before election day, according to data compiled by commission.

Lukashenko repeated past official warnings that street protests planned by the opposition in central Minsk after polls close are unsanctioned and will if necessary be broken up by force.

'What awaits supporters of the protest demonstrations? Read our laws,' Lukashenko said. 'Everything will be as per our laws - and that goes for security as well. There is not going to be any demonstration.'

Lukashenko has rejected claims the election will be fraudulent, saying his real support in the country is so substantial that he has no need to fix the vote in his favour.


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