Friday, April 15, 2011

Belarus denies govt involvement in subway blast

MINSK, Belarus (AP) -- The authoritarian president of Belarus angrily refuted allegations Saturday the government was behind a subway bombing in the capital that killed 13 and wounded more than 200 others.

Monday's bombing in Minsk puzzled terrorism experts who have struggled to speculate on possible motives in a tightly-controlled country with little history of attacks on such a scale.

Some bloggers have speculated that authorities may have resorted to terrorism to distract Belarusians from the country's poor economic state.

But President Alexander Lukashenko said in a televised address that "only idiots" would accuse the government.

"What they are saying - that this was done to distract the attention from the economic situation - only idiots and scoundrels would make such judgments," he said. "Is the situation in the country so critical that I have to resort to desperate measures? It is not critical."

Authorities have arrested five suspects in connection with the blast, including a man in his mid-20s accused of placing the bomb on the platform of Minsk's busiest subway station. Investigators haven't said who ordered the bombing.

Fears have grown over the days since the bombing that it is being used as a pretext to stamp out the last vestiges of political pluralism and dissent.

Lukashenko has ordered the country's dissidents to be questioned over the blast, while prosecutors have said irresponsible web reports have prompted a need to "bring order" to the Internet, one of the last outposts of free speech.

The concerns were compounded Friday, when the Information Ministry reprimanded two leading independent newspapers for their coverage of the bombing. The ministry warned the Nasha Niva and Narodnaya Volya dailies that their reports had hurt public interests and discredited authorities.

"The feeling is such that the possible perpetrators of the act of terrorism have disappointed the authorities. They have no ties to the opposition," said Anatoly Lebedko, leader of the opposition United Civil Party.

Independent political analyst Alexander Klaskovsky called the squeeze on the opposition after the blast "absurd" and evidence that Lukashenko fears for his political security.

Lukashenko, dubbed "Europe's last dictator" by the West, has run Belarus with an iron fist for nearly 17 years, retaining Soviet-style controls over the economy and cracking down on opposition and independent media.

He was declared the overwhelming winner of December's presidential election, which was strongly criticized by international observers. Hundreds of opposition activists, including seven of the nine other presidential candidates, were arrested following major protests sparked by the presidential vote.

Belarus is going through a severe economic crisis, with hard currency reserves running critically low and a possible currency devaluation looming.

Lukashenko said economic troubles had been fomented by unspecified forces as part of their efforts to destabilize Belarus.

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