Minsk: Belarus on Tuesday made the first arrests over the Minsk metro bombing that killed 12 commuters, the worst attack in its modern history which the authorities called a plot to destabilise the country.
The explosion at a busy metro station in the heart of the Belarussian capital near the headquarters of autocratic President Alexander Lukashenko stunned a city which has never seen attacks like those suffered in Russia.
Vadim Zaitsev, the head of the country`s security service, still known by its Soviet acronym KGB, said that three people had been arrested and were currently being interrogated.
He also said that the authorities were releasing a picture of a fugitive suspect who remains on the run and is suspected of being a perpetrator of the attack.
"The man is of non-Slavic appearance, up to 27 years old and well built. He was dressed in a brown coat and a woollen hat," Zaitsev told reporters, adding that the individual could have been hired.
The KGB said in a statement that 12 people had been killed, nine of whom were identified. A total of 149 people needed treatment, it said.
But the authorities otherwise appeared at a loss to explain the motive for the "act of terror", with Lukashenko saying that he could not rule out a foreign hand in the attacks.
"Guys, we have been presented with a serious challenge. We need an adequate response -- and it must be found," the strongman leader, once dubbed Europe`s last dictator by the United States, told a KGB meeting.
"I do not rule out that this is a present from outside but we must look at home too," he said. "Go and establish who could benefit from breaking the calm in the country," he told the KGB.
The KGB later said it was investigating three versions of events -- an attempt to destabilise the country, an attack by an extremist group and an action by a mentally unhealthy person.
The blast came amid rising political tensions in the country following Lukashenko`s controversial re-election on December 19, which sparked a massive opposition protest and a brutal crackdown on government critics.
Belarus, an ex-Soviet state between the EU and Russia, is also enduring severe economic crisis that has seen the government carry out a partial currency devaluation to preserve rapidly dwindling foreign currency reserves.
Belarus saw bomb blasts in 2005 in its western city of Vitebsk and in 2008 in Minsk. Both explosions, blamed on the nationalist fringe, wounded around 50 people but did not cause fatalities.
Lukashenko said the metro bombing and the July 2008 blast -- at concert which he attended -- could be "links in one chain".
An explosive device packed with ball bearings and with a force equivalent to five to seven kilograms of TNT, was apparently hidden under a bench on the platform of the metro station, Interior Minister Anatoly Kuleshov said.
It was likely set off by remote control, a security source told the Interfax news agency. It also quoted an anonymous "expert" saying it appeared the bomb was made of gunpowder and may have been homemade.
Lukashenko`s opponents, already reeling from the post-election crackdown, meanwhile raised fears the authorities could use the bombing as a pretext for new repression.
"These forces (behind the blast) want to provoke an even tougher political repression and destroy our country`s chance for European integration and weaken its independence," said top opposition figure Alexander Milinkevich.
Lukashenko visited the scene of the blast with his young extra-marital son Kolya, a boy who has become a talisman for the President and now accompanies him to almost all state events.
"We have been attacked, Crudely, cruelly and inhumanely," said the mass-circulation daily Belarus Sevodnya. "We Belarussians thought we could not have enemies. We were wrong," it added.