Belarus ordered a security crackdown after at least 12 people died in a subway bombing that the authorities classified as the first terrorist attack since President Aleksandr Lukashenko came to power in 1994.
An explosive device went off during the evening rush hour, wounding 192 people at the capital Minsk’s busiest metro station, which is near the presidential residence, the Interior Ministry and the Belarusian security agency said today in separate statements on their websites. The agency still uses its Soviet-era name, KGB.
Lukashenko ordered security tightened “to the uttermost” and said the blast may have been orchestrated from abroad, according to a transcript of an emergency government meeting published on the president’s website late yesterday.
“Leave no stone unturned,” Lukashenko told security officials at the meeting, according to the transcript. “They won’t leave us in peace. I warned you about that. Who are they? You need to hurry up and answer that question.”
The attack sought to destabilize the situation in the country and may be indirectly linked with recent presidential elections, the state-run news agency Belta reported today, citing KGB Chairman Vadim Zaitsev.
Lukashenko, 56, whose government is under European Union sanctions, extended his 16-year rule in December elections that international observers condemned as undemocratic. The ex-Soviet nation has been struggling to cope with foreign-currency shortage after reserves dwindled, forcing the central bank to devalue the ruble.
The explosion may act to “divert” the country’s attention from the crisis amid “apparently unpopular measures being implemented by the state,” Renaissance Capital analyst Anastasiya Golovach said in an e-mailed research note today.
The Prosecutor General’s Office declared the blast “an act of terrorism” and began a criminal investigation, Belarusian state television said. The authorities detained three people in connection with the explosion, including one suspect, Belta cited Zaitsev as saying.
Belarus’s law-enforcement authorities have prepared a composite sketch of an alleged attacker, a man of about 27 years old of non-Slavic appearance, Zaitsev said, according to Belta. The KGB chief added that the bomb had been radio-controlled. No one has yet claimed responsibility for the attack.
Lukashenko, a former Soviet collective farm boss whose regime was dubbed “Europe’s last dictatorship” by the U.S. in 2006, said his country is facing a “very serious challenge.”
The device went off as two trains were arriving at the Oktyabrskaya station, where the capital’s two metro lines intersect, Interior Minister Anatoly Kuleshov told Lukashenko at their meeting. The bomb, which was equivalent to 5 kilograms (11 pounds) to 7 kilograms of TNT, left a crater 80 centimeters (31 inches) deep, he said.
“The event is shocking, not just as a terrorist attack but also because it happened in Minsk, Belarus, a place which has for a long time been considered highly stable in terms of security,” VTB Capital analysts led by Alexei Moiseev in Moscow said by e-mail. “One of the key positive factors in Belarus, stability, has come under attack.”
Belarus sovereign bonds fell, extending yesterday’s declines. The yield on 2015 dollar bonds jumped 5 basis points to a weekly high of 10.924 percent as of 6:06 p.m. in Minsk. The yield on 2018 dollar notes was up 7 basis points at 11.131 percent, the highest since April 4.
Belarus, which lies wedged between EU member Poland and Russia, transports about a fifth of Russian gas shipments to Europe. It has been struggling to keep its public finances afloat in recent weeks after foreign reserves dwindled and ratings services downgraded the country’s debt. The government is seeking a loan of $3 billion from Russia and other former Soviet partners.
The central bank devalued the currency last month, allowing local lenders to sell foreign currency to companies at an exchange rate that deviates as much as 10 percent from the official rate, widening the spread from 2 percent.
While Lukashenko relaxed his hold on the country before the Dec. 19 election, his regime cracked down on demonstrators after the vote, arresting more than 700 people, including opposition candidates.
“Belarus does not face any obvious terrorist threats,” Timothy Ash, the head of emerging-market research at the Royal Bank of Scotland Group Plc in London, said by e-mail. “Domestic political opposition to the Lukashenko regime has also been peaceful, and we doubt that they would want to escalate their opposition to the administration by resort to violence; arguably this would undermine the broad political support they have received in the West.”
A bomb explosion in the capital during a concert attended by Lukashenko in July 2008 was classified by law-enforcement authorities as “hooliganism.” About 40 people were injured in that incident.
The two events may be linked, Lukashenko said last night, as he ordered the authorities to find those “seeking to benefit from exploding the calm and stability in the country.”
Investigators from Russia’s Federal Security Service, or FSB, the main successor to the KGB, arrived in Minsk to help their Belarusian counterparts in the investigation, according to Rossiya 24.
Russia has suffered a series of terrorist attacks in recent years. Twin suicide subway bombings during the morning rush hour in the Moscow subway killed 40 people a year ago. Doku Umarov, a rebel from Russia’s mainly Muslim Chechnya region, claimed responsibility for the attack.