23 July 2019, Tuesday, 23:59
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Sweden warns Lukashenko against exploiting bomb blast

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Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt has warned Belarusian strongman Aleksander Lukashenko not to exploit this week's bomb attack to further crack down on political opponents.

Speaking to EUobserver from a Nato meeting in Berlin on Thursday (14 April), Bildt noted that Lukashenko's aggressive tone in a TV speech on Wednesday is a bad sign of things to come.

"He is very dismissive of the West, of human rights, of the opposition. He seems to be on a rampage against everybody. You get the impression that he is taking the attack as an excuse for further repression," Bildt said. "There is a new level of fear [among opposition activists in Belarus], which is fairly natural if they see this rhetoric from Lukashenko. They are afraid that this might be part of his intention."

"These kinds of attack should be handled according to the rule of law. To have a climate of intimidation and fear is not a way to run your country, not even to handle a terrorist incident. He should be aware that we will be watching. If he uses this as an excuse to further intensify repression, this will certainly be noticed."

The Belarusian KGB has already arrested five people over the blast at the Oktyabrskaya metro station on Tuesday, which killed 12 people and injured over 150.

It said the explosion was caused by less than 1kg of a "unique" material. It also said the suspects are young Belarusians from the Minsk region, that some of them have confessed and that one of them is linked to a previous bomb attack in 2008. But it has not given a motive.

Noting that Lukashenko in the aftermath of December's election protests accused Germany and Poland of trying to stage a coup d'etat by giving cash to opposition, Bildt voiced concern that authorities will pin the bomb on Western sources for propaganda reasons.

"He says he has arrested these people and that he knows who they are, so one would expect him to pronounce himself on these issues shortly. But we can fear the worst," the minister said.

Lukashenko's only bomb-related reference to the EU was to criticise foreign ministers for discussing whether or not to impose economic sanctions in future.

The discussion was held behind closed doors in Luxembourg on Tuesday with no public statement. EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton had planned in the post-ministerial press briefing to call for the release of Belarusian "political prisoners." But she refrained out of deference to the shocking events.

"It has evolved into explicit blasphemy. The whole nation is in tragedy, people mourn over the victims, while our so-called European partners in Strasbourg [sic] talk about human rights … They could have waited till the mourning is over and till we bury those killed, at least," Lukashenko said in his TV speech.

On the subject of opposition activists, he said he would "turn the country inside out" to find the bomb plotters. "We are looking for accomplices and employers. These so-called politicians of the fifth column might point to employers [of the terrorists] … Everyone must be interrogated regardless of any democracy, whines and moans of foreign supporters."

One anti-Lukashenko contact told this website that since the blast opposition activists fear to publish any government-critical material or to sleep at their home address in case they are taken in by the KGB.

"What will happen to the poor guys who confessed at 5am about all these terrorist acts? I don't think they can count on any kind of trial," the source said. "They will arrest people in the street and justify everything with the fight against terrorism."

The explosion comes amid an economic slump in Belarus - the floor of the metro station was covered in torn bags of sugar as people returned home after hunting for the precious commodity because it is shooting up in price.

In a PR move unusual by EU standards, Lukashenko visited the blast site with his six year old son Kolya shortly before the KGB announced its breakthrough arrests.

The explosion is the fifth such incident in Lukashenko's 16-year-long rule.

A blast in 2008 at a stadium injured 60 people and was widely linked to internal power struggles in the presidential administration. A bomb in Vitebsk in 2005 injured 50. An explosion in late 1997 killed a local politician involved in the vodka business. A series of four earlier blasts in 1997 targeted Russian gas pipelines.