Belarus questions dissidents in subway bombing

Authorities in Belarus rounded up dissidents across the country Wednesday for questioning in the Minsk subway bombing after the president declared that his political opponents might know who "ordered the attack."

The rush-hour bombing killed 12 people and wounded over 200 on Monday at the main subway station in Minsk, the capital. No group or individual has claimed responsibility for the bombing, which Belarusian officials have called a terrorist attack.

In a televised statement Wednesday, President Alexander Lukashenko said two suspects have confessed to carrying out the subway attack but said authorities still did not know the mastermind behind the bombing.

The authoritarian president said he has asked the prosecutor general to interrogate leading opposition figures in connection with the blast "regardless of democracy, and cries and wailing of foreign sufferers."

"Maybe those politicians from the fifth column will open their cards and show who ordered it," he said.

Human rights activists said prosecutors were summoning opposition activists from all over for interrogations.

"Authorities clearly want to use the attack to boost their control over society and carry out new repressions," said Valentina Stefanovich of Vesna, a human rights center.

Lukashenko, dubbed "Europe's last dictator" by the West, had already launched a massive crackdown on opposition members in Belarus after widespread protests erupted over the December presidential election. Lukashenko was declared the overwhelming winner of that vote, which international observers strongly criticized and opponents said was rigged.

Lukashenko has run the former Soviet nation of 10 million with an iron fist for nearly 17 years, retaining Soviet-style controls over the economy and cracking down on opposition and independent media. Hundreds of dissidents were arrested after the presidential vote, including seven of the nine presidential candidates.

Lukashenko called the dissidents "a fifth column" threatening the country.

"Opposition must exist in our country but we will not have a fifth column. All this rant about democracy has nothing to do with people's power and the democracy that we have in our country," he said Wednesday.

Belarus is going through a severe economic crisis with hard currency reserves running critically low. People have been waiting in daylong lines to exchange Belarusian rubles for euros and dollars, fearing a likely devaluation of the national currency.

"Lukashenko needs to find a scapegoat for the disastrous situation in the country," said former presidential candidate Grigory Kostusev, who was jailed during the December rally. He was released after signing an agreement not to leave the country and is now facing 15 years in prison for staging the rally.

"With the economic collapse looming, Lukashenko is trying to make the most of it — consolidate the public opinion by offering it a theory about foreign enemies from Strasbourg who colluded with opposition," said independent political analyst Alexander Sosnov.

CCTV footage showed one of the two suspects leaving a bag in the Oktyabrskaya subway station in central Minsk and feeling around for something in his pocket shortly before the explosion, Deputy Prosecutor General Andrey Shved said earlier Wednesday.

Authorities have said the bomb was remote-controlled.

The country also observed a day of mourning for the victims on Wednesday. Flags flew with black ribbons and residents sobbed as they viewed portraits of the victims in the Minsk subway station.

One of Minsk's two subway lines remained closed Wednesday, creating massive traffic jams in this city of 2 million.


Associated Press writer Nataliya Vasilyeva contributed to this report from Moscow.