MINSK (Reuters) - A blast tore through a crowded metro station in the Belarus capital Minsk in evening rush hour on Monday, killing 11 people in what President Alexander Lukashenko said was an attempt to destabilize the country.
The blast occurred on a platform at around 6 p.m. at the Oktyabrskaya metro station -- one of the city's busiest underground rail junctions -- about 100 meters (yards) from the main presidential headquarters.
Witnesses said it tore through a crush of waiting passengers just as a train pulled in. "There was blood everywhere, in splashes and in pools. I saw pieces of flesh. It was terrible," a 47-year-old man, who gave his name only as Viktor, said.
"Prosecutors qualify this as a terrorist act," a source in Lukashenko's administration told Reuters.
As police placed the capital on high alert, Lukashenko, the autocratic leader who has led the ex-Soviet country since 1994, linked the explosion to a previous unsolved blast in 2008, saying: "These are perhaps links in a single chain."
"We must find out who gained by undermining peace and stability in the country, who stands behind this," he said in televised remarks.
Lukashenko, who is at odds with Western governments over a police crackdown on an opposition rally against his re-election last December, said: "I do not rule out that this (the blast) was a gift from abroad."
He was quoted by Interfax news agency as saying 11 people had been killed and 100 injured. A presidential administration source later said 126 people had been injured.
The European Union and the United States have imposed a travel ban on Lukashenko and his closest associates because of the December 19 crackdown. He himself has said the opposition rally was an attempted coup financed by the West.
Lukashenko, in his remarks, referred back to July 2008 when a home-made bomb wounded about 50 people at an open air concert he was attending. The crime was never solved.
TIGHTLY POLICED STATE
Despite this, acts of deliberate violence are unusual in Belarus, a tightly policed ex-Soviet republic of 10 million people which shares borders with EU members Poland, Latvia and Lithuania and with Russia and Ukraine.
One opposition figure said he feared Lukashenko would use the incident to crack down even more harshly on his political rivals.
"Regardless of who organized and ordered the blast, the government will be tempted to use it as an excuse to tighten the screws ... I am afraid they will use it," said Anatoly Lebedko, leader of the opposition United Civic Party.
Victims were carried out of the station and the injured were given on-the-spot medical treatment by ambulance workers before being taken to hospital. Reporters saw at least one dead person lying under sheeting outside the station.
A 52-year-old man who gave his name as Igor said a train was coming into the station when the blast occurred on the platform.
"The doors (of the train) opened and then there was an explosion," he said. "I saw people lying on the floor without moving. There was a lot of blood."
Alexander, 23, said: "All we saw in the metro was a big flash, everything started to shake, people were lying everywhere with torn-off arms and legs."
"We were lucky to be close to the escalator and the explosion was behind us," one girl told Reuters television.
Passengers, some bleeding from cuts to the face, groped their way through clouds of smoke to find a way out to the street.
(Reporting by Andrei Makhovsky; Writing by Richard Balmforth and Olzhas Auyezov, editing by Tim Pearce)