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Belarus detains dozens after KGB shootout, prominent rights group says

The Viasna human rights center said the detentions took place in the capital, Minsk and seven other cities.
Armed police officers patrol Oktyabrskaya Square in Minsk, Belarus March 24, 2017.
Armed police officers patrol Oktyabrskaya Square in Minsk, Belarus. Vasily Fedosenko / Reuters file

KYIV, Ukraine — Belarus' most prominent human rights group said Friday that some 100 people have been detained in the wake of a shootout that left an opposition supporter and a security officer dead.

The Viasna human rights center said the detentions took place in the capital, Minsk, and seven other cities and appeared to be connected to comments made on social media about the incident. It said those arrested face charges of insulting government officials and inciting "social enmity," which carry sentences of up to 12 years in prison.

Belarusian authorities reported the incident on Tuesday night, alleging that "an especially dangerous criminal" opened fire on security officers after they showed up at his apartment looking for "individuals involved in terrorist activities." Authorities said one of officers of the Belarus state security service, or KGB, was killed and the perpetrator was killed by return fire.

A large U.S.-based IT company founded by Belarusians, EPAM Systems, said the dead civilian was its employee Andrei Zeltser. EPAM last year started a program to train Belarusian IT workers who lost their jobs for supporting the massive protests that broke out against authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko after elections opponents called a sham in August 2020.

Lukashenko on Friday held a minute of silence during a meeting with presidential administration officials in honor of the dead KGB officer and vowed to "not forgive the death of this guy."

Earlier this week, the deputy head of Belarus' Interior Ministry, Nikolai Karpyankov, in televised remarks called for mass detentions of those who commented on the incident on social media, denouncing them as "absolute freaks."

Top Belarus opposition activist Pavel Latushko told The Associated Press that "a fair investigation (of the incident) is impossible under Lukashenko."

"Not only Andrei Zeltser — a calm, kind and compassionate man — has been declared a terrorist. All of those who disagree with the regime have been declared terrorists," Latushko told the AP from Warsaw, where he is currently in exile.

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On Wednesday, the Belarusian Ministry of Information blocked access to the website of Komsomolskaya Pravda in Belarus — the Belarusian subsidiary of a popular Russian newspaper of the same name.

The ministry didn't provide any reasons for the decision to block the website, which is visited by some 20,000 users daily, but access to it was restricted several hours after it ran a story about the shootout, which featured a comment from the dead civilian's friend, who described him a positive light.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov on Friday said the Russian authorities "categorically disagree" with the move. "We believe that it violates the principles of media freedom. We would expect the Belarusian side to ensure conditions for the work of our media outlets," Peskov said.