Pop fans' stampede crushes 54 to death in Minsk metro

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THE FIRST of many funerals will be held in Belarus today after at least 54 people, most of them teenage girls, were crushed to death in a metro underpass stampede on Sunday.

As the nation grieves, a government commission will begin to investigate the cause of the disaster, which happened after more than 1,000 people - many drunk and high-spirited after a rock concert - rushed into the underpass to escape a sudden spring thunderstorm.

Reports from Minsk, the capital of Belarus, suggested that some of the young women were killed because they were wearing high heels, which caused them to fall down a flight of slippery marble stairs as crowds thrust forward and then ran over them.

"There was such a huge crowd. I was carried away by it when it rushed to the underpass," said Vitaly Milentyev, 19. "I was lucky. I managed to get out of the crowd by going between the legs of other people. I will remember a young girl who died in my arms for the rest of my life."

Most of the victims were aged between 14 and 18. They had enthusiastically seized the chance to go to an open-air rock concert, held at the Minsk Sports Palace.

Of the dead, 42 were teenage girls and two were police officers who had reportedly tried to stop the crowd from streaming underground but were overwhelmed by the numbers.

"About 300 people were lying here," a policeman told the Belarussian President, Alexander Lukashenko, as he visited the scene, an underpass leading to Nyamiha metro station, near the centre of Minsk. "We were carrying out the first layer of people and they were still alive. In the second one were the dead and injured."

As radio and TV stations mourned the deaths by broadcasting only news and sombre classical music, there were fears the death toll would rise still further. Officials said 37 of the 150 who were injured in the stampede were in a critical condition. Television pictures from Minsk showed a hospital being besieged by families, frantically searching for their relatives in the hope that they were among those hurt, and not on the list of the dead. Others anxiously scanned photographs pinned up at a morgue.

Mr Lukashenko, who declared two days of mourning, described the disaster, which happened at about 8.30pm on Sunday, as "a frightening tragedy". For Belarus - a struggling former Soviet republic of 10 million people - it was "something unreal", he said. "They did everything they could - the police boys who tried to stop the flow died," he said, looking visibly shocked.

How much the commission of inquiry will be able to establish is open to doubt, as Mr Lukashenko, a former director of a collective farm, has ensured that his population lives in permanent fear of criticising the authorities, or even speaking openly. Journalists in Minsk yesterday found witnesses reluctant to give interviews.

But one of the opposition groups - a regular demonstrator against the government - did speak out. "How could city authorities which use battalions of police to disperse democratic rallies allow this stampede?" said a statement from the Belarus Youth Front.