More arrests made over Belarus subway bombing

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The Independent Online

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AP Photo MIN104, MIN102, MIN105, MIN106, MIN101, MIN113

By YURAS KARMANAU, Associated Press

MINSK, Belarus (AP) — Belarus on Thursday announced two more arrests in this week's deadly subway bombing as fears grew among opponents of authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko that he is using it as a pretext to further consolidate power.

It brings to five the number of suspects arrested since Monday's blast, which killed 12 and injured more than 200. Authorities said Wednesday that three suspects had been arrested, including a man in his mid-20s accused of placing the bomb on the platform of Minsk's busiest subway station.

Announcing the new arrests Thursday, Deputy Prosecutor General Andrei Shved said all five suspects were Belarusian citizens under the age of 30 without previous convictions.

He refused to release their identities, discuss what roles the other suspects played, or speculate on their motives.

Lukashenko has already suggested that the blast was the work of dissidents and has ordered the prosecutor general to round them up for interrogation, fueling speculation the strongman is seeking to use the explosion as a pretext to pressure opposition groups and independent journalists.

"We have become united as never before, and the rare voices (of discord) we hear today, including in some mass media, are an echo of the past," Lukashenko said Thursday at a meeting with top Orthodox Church hierarchs.

Shved confirmed the interrogations had begun and more would be conducted, but there were no details.

Opposition activists worry the Internet, the last pillar of free speech in the tightly controlled nation, could suffer unprecedented restrictions in the wake of the blast.

Prosecutor General Grigory Vasilevich said late Wednesday "it is necessary to bring order" to certain Internet portals that covered the bombing. State television Thursday lambasted opposition web sites that suggested the blast was useful for the authorities, saying they harmed the country's interests.

Alexander Starikevich, editor of the Solidarity opposition site, said he had received a warning from the prosecutor's office for "discrediting" the nation.

"We fear our site will be closed, because the Internet is the only alternative and independent source of information and the authorities are scared of this," Starikevich said.

Lukashenko, dubbed "Europe's last dictator" by the West, had already launched a widespread crackdown on opposition members after mass protests erupted over the December presidential election. He was declared the overwhelming winner of that vote, which international observers strongly criticized and opponents said was rigged.

Lukashenko has run the former Soviet nation of 10 million with an iron fist for nearly 17 years, retaining Soviet-style controls over the economy and cracking down on opposition and independent media.

Belarus is going through a severe economic crisis, with hard currency reserves running critically low and a possible currency devaluation looming.