Bloody attack ahead in Belarus vote - accusations fly - Feature

Author : DPA

Minsk - It should have been a pleasant Independence Day celebration in Belarus, but the state-organised music event ended in blood and horror. An explosive device detonated on the edge of a public concert attended by thousands in a central square of Minsk, the Belarusian capital, during the early hours of Friday morning.

The explosive device containing screws, nuts and bolts injured more than 50 concert-goers, three seriously.

Aleksander Lukashenko, the former Soviet republic's authoritarian president, was present at the concert but some distance from the blast in a VIP reviewing stand, and not injured.

Presidential body-guards conducted the former collective farm head from the scene of the bombing, by any standard an incident of unprecedented violence in the tightly-controlled country.

The show went on, and emergency medics carried away the injured in stretchers as Belarusian and Russian pop singers continued their performance, rock and roll drowned out ambulance sirens, and KGB agents worked through the crowd video-taping members of the audience.

Lukashenko the following morning vowed he would take "personal control" of the government investigation into the apparent terror attack.

Just as quickly, leaders of the country's embattled opposition were predicting police crackdown aiming less to find the bombers than to punish the president's critics, and to guarantee Lukashenko's continued control of the legislature in parliament elections three months away.

Belarusian independent news web sites, one of the last places independent information still can be had in Belarus, were drawing attention Friday to Lukashenko's almost-spooky prescience in a Thursday Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper interview, in which he predicted a street bombing in the run-up to the parliamentary vote.

"There are circles of people close to the state, who could well be interested in increasing tensions before the vote," said Svetlana Kalinka, chief editor of the opposition Narodnaya Volia newspaper.

Lukshenko in the Komsomolska Pravda article linked opposition to his regime, and seemingly even future bombings in Belarus, directly to Washington, saying "They (the US) have always said it openly: They only give money (to the Belarusian opposition) when something happens. Therefore (there are in Belarus) demonstrations or even better riots or explosions."

Belarusian government spokesmen on Friday initially suggested a single attacker acting alone was the most likely perpetrator of the attack.

But only hours after the explosion, reports of a second bomb either found or - even - accidentally detonated by police only hours were reported in Russian and Ukrainian news agencies, after which government officials backed off from the single attacker theory, admitting to media "we haven't ruled anything out."

Anatoly Lebedko, an opposition leader, told the Russian RIA- Novosti news agency he feared the state would, regardless of the perpetrator, make its enemies responsible for the bombing.

Friday's conflicting government explanations of what went wrong along with vows to punish the guilty, opposition claims the state would pin public death and injury on Lukashenko's enemies no matter who actually was at fault, and dozens of injuries to the general public with rock music in the background is not new.

During a May 31 1999 rock concert in Minsk a mass panic and stampede in the concert exit, a tunnel, left 52 dead, more than 100 injured, and the Belarusian government and opposition focusing primarily on who would be named guilty.

Lukashenko has ruled Belarus since taking control of the country in a 1994 constitutional coup. Mass anti-government demonstrations following his 2006 re-election to office were broken up by police, and the protest leader sentenced to more than five years in prison.

An admirer of Soviet-style strong-arm rule, Lukashenko in recent months has cracked down on opposition media, requiring all news agencies to register with the government or shut down.

Other repression targets include evangelical Christian groups, ethnic Polish associations, and NGOs with links to Western governments.

Lukashenko's critics nonetheless point to a possible weakening of his control over the country, and potential problems at the September 28 upcoming polls, because of rising public discontent due to increasing prices for fuel, food, and household goods.