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Belarus terror probe widens into crackdown on opposition

Belarussian authorities said Wednesday that they have caught and extracted confessions from three people accused of detonating a powerful bomb that killed 12 people and injured more than 200 in a Minsk metro station Monday.

President Alexander Lukashenko, who has been Belarus’s undisputed leader for the past 17 years, took to the airwaves after the arrests to announce that he has ordered security services to spread an even wider net as part of an investigation that is already leading to widespread crackdowns on opposition groups.

The head of Belarus’s KGB security service, Vadim Zaitsev, said one of the suspects had confessed to planting the remote-controlled device, and the other two admitted to involvement in the plot. Their identity or whether authorities are aware of any motive has not been released. The main suspect, said Mr. Zaitsev, is a young man who is “not only unhealthy in his psychological state, but also unhealthy in his ambitions.”

Human rights activists in Belarus were reporting Wednesday that several opposition politicians had already been summoned for questioning by the KGB in connection with the bombing.

Mr. Lukashenko said the aim of the crackdown is to catch not only the “fifth column” opposition members who he implied had ordered the attack, but also anyone spreading unspecified “rumors” about the terrorist attack, those who foment protests over food prices or currency devaluations, and people possessing unregistered firearms.

“Today the crime was solved,” Lukashenko said. “The most important thing is that we know how and by whom the terrorist attack was committed,” although the suspects – two of whom are factory workers – have not yet divulged the names of any accomplices, he said.

“I have given instructions to review all statements by [opposition] political leaders,” Lukashenko continued. “We are looking for accomplices and those who ordered [the act]. These figures from the so-called fifth column may reveal their cards and indicate who ordered it…. Everyone should be brought in and questioned, and we shouldn’t worry our heads with any questions of democracy, or the moaning and wailing of foreign bleeding hearts.”

Viktor Ivashkevich, a leader of the Belarussian Choice opposition group, says that many of those arrested after protesting against alleged vote-rigging in December parliamentary elections that brought Lukashenko back for a fourth term, reported being tortured by the KGB security police, which leaves him deeply worried about today’s announcement.

“Who knows what methods were used to get those confessions,” he says. “Lukashenko indicated that he believes it was the opposition that ordered the terrorist act, and he said that the struggle against terrorism will now be expanded to include rumors about food shortages, with no more concerns over human rights. What we see is that the threat of terrorism will be used to reduce civil freedoms and crush any protests over inflation.”

The state-funded Russia Today network reported Wednesday that Belarussian authorities have begun shutting down critical websites, including the human rights group Charter 97 (though its English page is still up).

In what sounded rather like the declaration of a state of emergency, Lukashenko went on to urge Belarussians to tighten their belts, work harder, and complain less. “Looseness, slovenliness, lack of strict discipline and organization are inadmissible today. All this talk about democracy and democratization that is being imposed on us has nothing to do with the genuine democracy and the government of people that are and should be in our country,” he said.

“From now on every Belarussian must understand that without drastically changing their attitudes to themselves, their lives, their jobs, families, and children, to people around us we will not reach the intensive development goals that we aim for. Only the strictest order, organization, and efficient work are the foundation of our future survival. And our nation is ready for that,” Lukashenko said.

Some Russian analysts say they are skeptical of the speed with which the terrorist suspects were apprehended and made to confess.

“I understand that Belarussian special services are from the old Soviet school, and their republic is small, but such rapid results are difficult to understand and hard to believe,” says Alexei Vlasov, an expert on the post-Soviet region at Moscow State University. “Unfortunately we haven’t got enough information about [the suspects] to make any conclusions.”

On the other hand, he adds, “it is clear that Lukashenko is very upset about panic and rumors. He can’t do anything about what the foreign media is reporting, but in his own country he wants to introduce some sort of ‘wartime rules’ to put an end to all that.”

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