Death toll in Belarus subway blast reaches 12

Prez Alexander Lukashenko has describing the blast as "a serious challenge" to the nation.

Minsk: Belarusian authorities said Tuesday they have suspects in a subway bombing as the death toll rose to 12, with more than 200 wounded. The opposition, meanwhile, voiced fears that the attack may lead to an increased crackdown on dissent.

Belarus` domestic security agency, which still goes under its Soviet-era name KGB, said it had identified the likely perpetrator of Monday`s explosion at a busy downtown subway station and was searching for him. It didn`t elaborate. Interior Minister Anatoly Kuleshov said police had created composite pictures of two male suspects using testimony from witnesses. He said the bomb apparently was radio-controlled.

The Interior Ministry said the bomb placed under a bench on the Oktyabrskaya station exploded as people were coming off the trains during the evening rush hour.

The Oktyabrskaya station is within 100 meters (yards) of the presidential administration building and the Palace of the Republic, a concert hall often used for government ceremonies.

Belarus` authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko said at a meeting with officials late Monday that foreign forces could be behind the explosion, but he didn`t elaborate.

Authorities said 204 people sought medical help and 157 of them were hospitalized, including 22 in critical condition.

Viktor Sirenko, the chief doctor of the Minsk Emergency Hospital, said that many victims had lost arms or legs.

People streamed to the site of explosion to lay flowers as police tightened security at all subway stations.

"I went through that hell, I saw that pile of disfigured bodies," 37-year old Nina Rusetskaya said as she lit a candle at the explosion site. "I rode a car in the back of the train and only survived by a miracle."

Lukashenko, in power for nearly 17 years and dubbed "Europe`s last dictator" by the West, was declared the overwhelming winner of December`s presidential election which international observers said was rigged. He has run the former Soviet nation of 10 million with an iron fist, retaining Soviet-style controls over the economy and cracking down on opposition and independent media.

Lukashenko took his 6-year-old son to visit the site of the explosion about two hours after the blast. He later ordered the country`s feared security forces to "turn everything inside-out" to find the culprits.

Many in the beleaguered opposition worry that harassment and oppression will increase in the wake of the blast.

"The authorities may use the explosion for further limitations of civil freedoms and tightening security measures," said Anatoly Lebedko, leader of the opposition United Civil Party. Lebedko was released from jail last week after being arrested in a sweep against opposition supporters in the wake of the December presidential election.

In all, some 700 people were arrested after a massive demonstration broke out against the allegedly rigged election.

On Tuesday, KGB agents conducted a search at one of the main Belarusian independent newspapers, Nasha Niva, editor Andrei Skurko said to a news agency.

"They are blockading us in the editorial offices" and demanding the paper turn over videos taken at the blast site, he said.

Alexander Milinkevich, another prominent opposition leader, also expressed fears of a new crackdown.

"Forces both inside and outside the country, which are interested in the destabilization of the situation in Belarus, could profit from that terror attack," Milinkevich said in a statement Tuesday. "These forces want to provoke even harsher political repressions."

The European Union and the United States have responded to the flawed vote with sanctions, leaving Lukashenko to rely exclusively on it main sponsor and ally Russia.

Lukashenko has often launched diatribes at the West, accusing it of trying to destabilize Belarus. But his relations with Russia also have often been strained in the past as he accused the Kremlin of trying to wrest control over Belarus` key economic assets.

Belarus is facing a severe economic crisis with hard currency reserves running critically low and people waiting in daylong lines to exchange rubles as they prepare for devaluation of the national currency.

Alexander Klaskovsky, an independent political analyst, said that Lukashenko would likely use the attack to further tighten control in view of the economic upheavals. "Lukashenko will use it to strengthen his hand ahead of a looming economic catastrophe and social tensions," he said to a news agency.

Bureau report