Belarus blast, not far from leader, hurts 50

By Andrei Makhovsky

MINSK, July 4 (Reuters) - About 50 people were injured when a home-made bomb exploded in Belarus's capital early Friday at an outdoor Independence Day concert attended by long-time 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.

Legkiy said Lukashenko was not the target.

"This was not an attempted assassination of the president," he said, adding that the bomb was aimed at those attending the concert, held in a large park.

A police official said earlier the likely motive for the bomb was "hooliganism" -- a term commonly used by officials in former Soviet states to play down the significance of an attack.

Police initially said 40 people had been injured but the Health Ministry later raised the figure to about 50.

The bomb went off in a big square in Minsk shortly after midnight local time (2100 GMT), while thousands were attending the concert. A Reuters witness said the explosion left a pit 20 centimetres deep with blood spattered on the grass around it.

Another 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."

The West has accused Lukashenko, a close Russian ally, of gagging independent media, quelling protests and incarcerating opponents. The European Union and the United States have banned him from entry, saying he rigged his 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, wedged between Russia and Poland.

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)