Human rights activists say dozens of people have been detained in Belarus following a shooting in Minsk.
The Viasna-96 group said the arrests appeared to be connected to social media comments made about the shootout.
Those arrested reportedly face charges of insulting government officials and inciting “social enmity”, which carry sentences of up to 12 years in prison.
Viasna says more than 85 people had been arrested following the shooting, which left an opposition supporter and a KGB officer dead.
The United States has condemned the shooting and says the incident represents “a regrettably well-established pattern” in Belarus.
Videos of the incident and the subsequent arrest and “confessions” of those detained have also appeared in online adverts.
The United States envoy to Belarus has stated that this use “reflects more reprehensible motives”.
The gunfight in Minsk
According to authorities, the shooting took place at an apartment in the Belarusian capital city on Tuesday evening.
Belarus’ Investigative Committee said state security officers were there to investigate people suspected of involvement in “terrorist activities”.
“The 31-year-old citizen of Minsk refused to open the door of the flat and locked himself inside when law enforcement officers demanded,” the Committee said in a statement.
The man was also reported to be recording the incident for the purpose of “hype”, they added.
Footage aired by Belarusian state TV channels showed men in plain clothes breaking into an apartment before the shootout.
Belarus says when officers forcibly entered the flat, the man opened fire on them with a “hunting rifle”. Security officers then returned fire and fatally injured the man.
The Belarusian KGB has described the dead citizen in a statement as a “particularly dangerous criminal”.
“Given the nature of the violence used [and] armed resistance from the 31-year-old man, he was eliminated by return fire,” the Committee added.
One of the KGB officers was also wounded and died later in hospital. A criminal investigation into his death is underway, the Committee said.
Who was the civilian victim?
Belarusian authorities said that the suspect’s 40-year-old wife, who was also recording the incident, had been arrested.
The Investigative Committee said that the woman was had “assisted” the dead gunman and had been detained on suspicion of “complicity in the murder of the KGB officer”.
Franak Viačorka, an adviser to Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, identified the civilian killed as opposition supporter Andrei Zeltser.
“According to his friends, he supported [the] democracy movement in Belarus,” Viačorka tweeted on Wednesday.
On Thursday, a Belarusian tech news website, Dev.by, said the man was an employee of EPAM Systems, a large US-based IT company founded by Belarusians.
EPAM last year started a programme to train Belarusian IT workers who lost their jobs for supporting the massive opposition protests that broke out against authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko.
The company’s Belarusian founder was also a signatory to an open letter calling for the release of political prisoners and opposition activists.
“Yesterdays’ tragedy is a result of lawlessness in Belarus. Our people don’t feel safe anymore, even in their homes,” Tsikhanouskaya said on Twitter.
“The autocrat holding on to the power with violence and terror creates a confrontation between Belarusians.”
Demonstrations grew in Belarus following Lukashenko’s disputed re-election for a sixth term as president in August 2020.
Lukashenko’s government unleashed a violent crackdown on the protesters, arresting more than 35,000 people and badly beating thousands of them.
Belarus’ authorities often referred to protesters at anti-government demonstrations as “extremists” or “terrorists”.
‘Further evidence’ of Belarusian threats
Despite reports in Belarusian and Russian media, there is no confirmation that the man killed in Minsk was American.
The US Ambassador to Belarus, Julie Fisher, said they were seeking additional information on whether the victim in the shooting was a US citizen.
“We have noted reports about the disturbing shooting incident in Minsk, Belarus, on September 28 and deplore the violence and loss of life,” Fisher said on Twitter.
“This incident appears to provide further evidence of the regime’s continued willingness to utilise extreme methods to threaten perceived political opponents,” she added.
“The United States condemns these actions and the full range of politically-motivated attacks against civil society, media, private companies, and political opponents.”
In neighbouring Ukraine, Belarusians held a protest rally in Kyiv on Wednesday evening.
Media silenced for reporting on the shooting
One of the first to report on the incident was the Komsomolskaya Pravda website, the Belarusian subsidiary of a popular Russian newspaper.
The news outlet published comments from the opposition supporter’s friend, who described him in a positive light.
But several hours after the story went live, access to the website was blocked.
The Belarusian Ministry of Information did not provide any reasons for the decision to block the popular website, which is visited by some 20,000 users daily.
It was the latest incident in a series of steps restricting independent media in the country in the last year.
The chief editor of Komsomolskaya Pravda, Vladimir Sungorkin, said the decision to block the website was directly related to their article on the shootout, adding that it has become “very difficult” for journalists to work in Belarus.
A total of 27 journalists in Belarus are currently behind bars, either already convicted and sentenced or awaiting trials.
On Tuesday, the country’s Investigative Committee reiterated that they would clamp down on acts against the KGB and its officers.
“Each case of pressure, threats, and attempts to carry them out against law enforcement officers, citizens performing their public duty, and their relatives will be subjected to a rigorous and principled legal assessment,” the statement read.
“Those responsible for unlawful actions towards officials will be identified and brought to justice in accordance with the law.”