MINSK (Reuters) - Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko ordered security forces on Wednesday to question local “political actors” -- a reference to the opposition -- over a metro station bomb attack which killed 12 people.
Lukashenko also congratulated security officials for netting the suspects in Monday’s bombing, which also injured 150 people at the station in the center of the capital Minsk.
“Today ... the crime was solved. The (state security service) KGB and police needed just one day ... to carry out a brilliant operation and detain the perpetrators,” Lukashenko said as his ex-Soviet republic observed a day of mourning for the victims.
“(But) we must look into statements made by political actors ... Maybe these actors from the ‘fifth column’ will open their cards and point to the one who ordered (the attack).”
Lukashenko, an autocratic leader who has led Belarus since 1994, frequently uses the terms “political actors” and “the fifth column” to refer to Belarus’ weak, fragmented opposition.
Two of the detained suspects -- an electrician and a lathe-operator -- confessed to carrying out the attack and also admitted to two earlier bomb explosions, Lukashenko said.
“The detained criminals have confessed not only to carrying out the terrorist act in the Minsk metro. They are also responsible for the previous Independence Day and Vitebsk terrorist acts,” Lukashenko said, referring to explosions in 2008 and 2005 respectively.
Probes into those blasts, which caused no fatalities but injured many people, had been unsuccessful and they were dismissed as acts of hooliganism.
Separately, Interior Minister Anatoly Kuleshov told reporters three suspects had been detained in total, all of them Belarusian citizens. He provided no other details.
Officials said CCTV recordings allowed them to identify the sole person who had planted the bomb. The roles of the two others remained unclear.
At another briefing, KGB head Vadim Zaytsev said the bomber, who had used a rare type of explosive substance discovered on the Internet, could be mentally ill.
Lukashenko urged officials to stop “panic” from spreading. This included speculation about the rouble exchange rate and other economic issues.
The blast has coincided with mounting economic difficulties in Belarus, a country of 10 million people.
The central bank last month allowed a de facto 10 percent rouble devaluation on the interbank market and stopped selling foreign currency from its depleted reserves while the government asked Russia for $3 billion in bailout loans.
However, talks with Moscow are progressing slowly and analysts say further devaluation is very likely.
On Wednesday, the central bank said it would raise its key refinancing rate by 100 basis points to 13 percent, reflecting accelerating inflation.
Belarusian‘s, unable to buy foreign currency at exchange points, have already switched to unofficial exchange rates and started buying foodstuffs such as sugar in large volumes.
“Any panic with regards to currency, food and other issues must be stopped,” he said. “Those spreading slander will face criminal prosecution.”
Opposition politicians and analysts expect a witch hunt.
“If we make spreading rumors and panic a crime we will have to stop all construction activities and switch to building prisons because this is what the whole country is doing,” said Anatoly Lebedko, leader of the opposition United Civic Party. “We should expect a few ‘show trials’.”
A number of opposition leaders and activists are already in detention following a police crackdown on the December 19 rally that protested against Lukashenko’s re-election for a fourth term in a vote that Western observers had criticized as fraudulent.
A think-tank, Exclusive Analysis, said in a note the bombing would further bolster the role of security forces.
“While there is no evidence that the Belarusian government instigated the April 11 attack, its occurrence is highly likely to provide a pretext for the government to maintain and reinforce the predominance and scope of Belarus’ security apparatus,” Exclusive Analysis said.
Writing by Olzhas Auyezov and Richard Balmforth