Explosion in Belarus injures 40

By Andrei Makhovsky

MINSK (Reuters) - About 40 people were injured, some seriously, when a home-made bomb exploded at an outdoor Independence Day concert in Belarus's capital attended by longtime ruler President Alexander Lukashenko, officials said.

Lukashenko, criticised by the West for ruling the ex-Soviet state with an iron grip since the mid-1990s, reacted by moving over to check the site of the blast, his spokesman said.

"The president was not far. He reached the site of the explosion within several minutes. He did not stay long so as not to interfere with the work of the emergency services," presidential spokesman Pavel Legkiy told Reuters.

"The type of the explosive has now been established. According to preliminary data, this was a home-made explosive device," he said.

A police official said about 40 people had received injuries of various types. Several thousand people were attending the concert, held in a big square in Minsk.

"Most likely this device was set off with hooligan motives. Investigative groups are on the scene now," the official said.

One eyewitness told Reuters that he saw nuts and bolts around the area of the explosion.

"I heard a loud explosion and there was black smoke," said 28-year-old Sergey, who did not give his second name.

"People started shouting. No one stopped the concert. They just isolated the place around the explosion and emergency vehicles began coming."

A Reuters witness said the explosion left a pit 20 centimetres deep.

The West has strongly criticised Lukashenko's rule, accusing him of trampling on free speech and jailing opponents. The European Union and the United States have banned him from entry, saying he rigged his landslide re-election in 2006.

Lukashenko argues he has helped save Belarus from the political and economic chaos of other ex-Soviet states and remains broadly popular in the country of 10 million. There have been no known assassination attempts against him.

In 2005, a home-made explosive device injured over 40 people in the northern city of Vitebsk.

A little known, anti-Lukashenko group calling itself the "Belarussian National Liberation Army" later claimed responsibility but no one was convicted for the attack.

(Reporting by Andrei Makhovsky; writing by Sabina Zawadzki; Editing by Ibon Villelabeitia)