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Saturday, 8 September, 2001, 00:23 GMT 01:23 UK
OSCE denies Belarus claims
Pro-Lukashenko rally
Lukashenko is expected to win easily
The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) has urged the Belarus authorities to stop what it calls an unfounded public campaign against its observers ahead of Sunday's presidential elections.

The OSCE has denied accusations in the Belarusian press that it was acting as an umbrella for Western spy services which want to overthrow President Alexander Lukashenko.

Protesters
Protesters want to know the fate of the disappeared
The organisation said it supported the development of democratic institutions and called on the Belarusian authorities to renew their co-operation with the OSCE.

President Lukashenko, who has governed Belarus with a strong hand since 1994, is expected to easily win a second term in the elections.

Mr Lukashenko's autocratic style, and his persecution of political opponents and independent media, have made him an outcast in the West.

However, he remains widely popular in his own country due to his populist style and efforts to preserve the Soviet-era social safety net.

The OSCE, which has sent 300 observers to monitor the elections, has expressed numerous concerns about their fairness.

But Foreign Minister Mikhail Khvostov this week described the mission's head, Hans-Georg Wieck, as a "full-time professional spy".

Protests

Various groups staged demonstrations in the capital Minsk on Friday.

Alexander Lukashenko
Lukashenko denies involvement in disappearances
Correspondents say they were taking advantage of the observers' presence to avoid being dispersed.

Protesters gathered outside Mr Lukashenko's residence demanding to learn the fate of government opponents who have disappeared.

And later, gay and lesbian activists staged a colourful pride march through the city. Last year's march was broken up by police.

Death squads

The president has said the government had nothing to do with disappearances and has ordered official investigations, but these have so far produced no results.

Vladimir Goncharik
Vladimir Goncharik: Presidential challenger
Several former members of the security forces who have defected to the West have accused Mr Lukashenko of setting up death squads to eliminate political opponents.

Among the disappeared are:

  • Former Interior Minister and Lukashenko opponent Yuri Zakharenko, who went missing in May 1999

  • Opposition politician Viktor Gonchar and his friend, businessman Anatoly Krasovsky, who vanished together in September that year

  • Television cameraman Dmitry Zavadsky.

'Credible' allegations

Presidential challenger Vladimir Goncharik said on Friday that there was no proof that Mr Lukashenko was involved in setting up death squads, but he added that he thought there soon would be.

This spring two former investigators, Dmitry Petrushkevich and Oleg Sluchak, publicly accused the government of creating death squads.

They fled to the United States in May, saying they feared for their lives, and received political asylum.

The US State Department said their allegations were credible.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Jacky Rowland
reports from Minsk
See also:

01 Aug 01 | Europe
Belarus leader accuses OSCE
22 Jun 01 | From Our Own Correspondent
Belarus stuck in a timewarp
07 Jun 01 | Europe
The disappeared of Belarus
13 Jan 01 | Europe
Belarus courts US foes
19 Jun 98 | Europe
Alexander Lukashenko: a profile
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