A powerful blast rocked the Minsk metro during evening rush hour Monday, killing 11 passengers and injuring 126 others in a busy downtown subway station. Belarus law enforcement agencies said the explosion, on a platform at the Oktyabrskaya station as a train arrived, was an act of terrorism.
The blast shattered windows, injuring people inside the train and on the platform of the station, located near the presidential headquarters in the center of the Belarusian capital.
"I just entered the station to go pick up our daughter from my mother-in-law's when I felt a growing smell of burning and saw many people rushing out, some of them screaming," Ivan Kaplun, an engineer who lives close to the station, said in a phone interview.
Kaplun said he helped carry out an injured woman, past bodies and pools of blood.
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, often referred to as the last European dictator, placed flowers at the blast site and hurried to his office for an emergency meeting, after which he announced that Russian President Dmitry Medvedev had offered to send a team of investigators.
"I must admit we have been very seriously challenged," Lukashenko said in televised remarks late Monday. "An adequate response is needed and this response must be found."
Lukashenko also expressed a desire to seek the assistance of the general public to help "find these freaks."
The attack was the first in Minsk since July 3, 2008, when dozens of people were injured at a public park as they celebrated Independence Day. The perpetrators were not found, though Lukashenko ordered every adult man in the country fingerprinted.
Lukashenko was reelected last December, winning about 80% of the votes in a controversial election. European Union observers refused to accept the results and Lukashenko's inauguration in January was ignored by most Western diplomats.
The tainted vote also led to an election night protest that was brutally crushed by police, who arrested dozens of demonstrators, including several presidential candidates.
Lukashenko accused the West of funding the opposition. "We could have woken up today in a different country," Lukashenko said at a news conference at the end of December, blaming the opposition for an attempt to storm government headquarters, encouraged by Western assistance and funding.
"When they are telling me about the West I absolutely don't trust them as most likely they were trying to lull us… but now we see their real face."
Human rights activists warn of serious political repercussions in the aftermath of Monday's blast. "Something tells me that the authorities may take advantage of the situation and crack down on the opposition with renewed force," said Valentin Stefanovich, deputy head of Vyasna, a human rights center.
About 30 opposition activists, including ex-presidential candidates Nikolay Statkevich and Andrei Sannikov, are still in custody and may face up to 15 years in prison over the election night protests.
"Whoever is behind this inhuman and mysterious act of barbarism has nothing to do with the opposition," Svetlana Kalinkina, editor in chief of the independent Narodnaya Volya newspaper, said in an interview with The Times. "But I am sure the law enforcement will be looking for culprits among the opposition, as they always do."