Belarus' president escapes bomb attack

By Adrian Blomfield in Moscow

Alexander Lukashenko, the autocratic president of Belarus, escaped unscathed after a nail bomb exploded during Independence Day celebrations in central Minsk.

At least 50 people were wounded after the device exploded in one of the city's main square during an open-air concert that drew tens of thousands of mainly youngsters.

Mr Lukashenko, who the United States describes as Europe's last dictator, was seated close to the blast but was unhurt. Police described the attack as an act of "hooliganism" and officials said they did not believe the president was the target.

"This was not an attempted assassination of the president," Pavel Legkiy, Mr Lukashenko's spokesman, said. "That is my personal opinion, not as a specialist but as a person who was at the scene.

"Of course there can be a number of explanations and the truth will be established in the course of the investigation." Bizarrely, Mr Lukashenko was not evacuated and the concert continued as though nothing had happened.

Police cordoned off the blast crater and ambulances ferried the injured, some covered in blood, to hospital as revellers continued to dance around them.

Some of the injured had fingers and toes ripped off by the force of the blast.

After the concert ended, police found a second bomb that had failed to detonate.

No group has yet claimed responsibility for the attack, although suspicion is likely to fall on the Belarussian National Liberation Army, an anti-Lukashenko movement, which took responsibility for a bomb in the northern city of Vitebsk that injured 40 people in 2005.

Peaceful opposition groups fear that Mr Lukashenko could use the attack to launch a fresh clampdown on their activites.

The country's tiny opposition is already the victim of draconian repression in a country that has preserved its Soviet identity more than any of the former states that made up the USSR.

Mr Lukashenko has been banned from entering the United States and the European Union after he was accused of rigging his re-election in 2006.

One of his opponents in the vote, Alexander Kozulin, is serving a five-year jail sentence for taking part in a pro democracy demonstration shortly after the election. He was accused of hooliganism after he gave flowers to riot policemen.