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Top Belarus opposition leader says won't run in vote

MINSK (Reuters) - Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko’s closest challenger in a disputed 2006 presidential vote said on Friday he will not run in a December election because he believes it will be rigged.

Belarus' opposition leader Alexander Milinkevich, award winner of the the European Parliament's Sakharov Prize for freedom of thought, attends the award ceremony of the prize at the European Parliament in Strasbourg December 12, 2006. REUTERS/Vincent Kessler

Alexander Milinkevich was supported by most of the ex-Soviet republic’s beleaguered opposition in the 2006 election and led street protests following the vote, which international observers said was undemocratic.

Lukashenko, in power since 1994, has suggested he will seek a new five-year term in the December 19 vote.

“I don’t want to participate in a play which has only one director-screenwriter,” Milinkevich told reporters. “We do not have elections, only an election campaign.”

He said he would support other opposition candidates favoring closer ties with Europe. The EU and United States have long shunned Lukashenko, accusing him of maintaining power through illegitimate elections and harshly suppressing dissent.

Opposition leaders disputed the official vote count in 2006, which gave Lukashenko more than 82 percent and Milinkevich 6 percent. Police forcibly broke up protests over the vote.

The fractured opposition has not united behind a single candidate for the December vote.

But hostility from long-time ally Russia and a sharp slowdown in the economy, which the IMF said grew 0.2 percent in 2009 after showing 10 percent growth a year earlier, could make it hard for Lukashenko to repeat his landslide 2006 victory.

“Lukashenko has never been as weak as he is now,” Milinkevich said.

But analysts say Lukashenko, who remains popular among many in the nation of 10 million and whose government controls most media, will likely have little trouble winning re-election.

Reporting by Andrei Makhovsky; writing by Amie Ferris-Rotman