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Belarus pulls embassy staff from Sweden over toy bear

posted 8 Aug 2012, 09:48 by Sam Mbale   [ updated 8 Aug 2012, 09:49 ]

Belarus says it is withdrawing its remaining embassy staff from Sweden over a pro-democracy stunt involving an air drop of teddy bears on its territory. The pilot who flew the plane says he will go to Minsk to help in an inquiry if his safety is guaranteed.

Belarus said on Wednesday (August 8) it was withdrawing its remaining embassy staff from Sweden over a pro-democracy stunt involving an air drop of teddy bears on its territory and gave Sweden until the end of the month to pull its diplomats out of Minsk.
Though a foreign ministry statement said Belarus was not severing relations with the Nordic country, the move marked an escalation in the dispute and looked certain to worsen the already strained ties with the European Union.

Belarus expelled Sweden's ambassador on August 3 following the July 4 escapade in which about 800 toy bears bearing pro-democracy messages were parachuted into the hardline former Soviet republic from a light aircraft chartered by a Swedish public relations firm.

The incident was a humiliation for President Alexander Lukashenko and it took Belarus more than three weeks to confirm the teddy bear incident after it happened.

Lukashenko subsequently sacked his air defence chief and head of the border guards and reprimanded the state security agency for lapses in vigilance. He told the incoming border guards chief not to hesitate to use weapons to stop any future air intrusions from abroad.

In a statement on its website, the Belarussian KGB on Tuesday (August 7) asked Swedish citizens who took part in the stunt to travel to Belarus to aid "an objective investigation."

Tomas Mazetti, one of the owners of the company involved in the stunt, said he had not received an invitation.

"First of all, that invitation, as they call it, is very vague - we have not received an official invitation - and it's not very well expressed either. But if we receive an official invitation, and they guarantee that they will not punish us for everything, we have already said that we will come and aid their investigations in any way we can," he said

Mazetti asked Reuters not to disclose his current location as he had already received death threats.

"We have said that if they need our help in the investigation of what we did, we will come, but at the moment we are receiving threats which our sources tell us are from the KGB which does not make it more easy for us to accept an invitation and if they are a serious government law agency they should send us a letter, a recommended letter, or something. They must be able to cope with doing that," he said.

The KGB statement also said two men, Anton Suryapin and Sergei Basharimov, had been detained on suspicion of complicity in the July 4 "illegal intrusion" by a Swedish light aircraft and formally charged.

Suryapin, who is aged about 20, had earlier been identified as a blogger who was arrested after photographs of the toy bears were published on the Internet.

Basharimov is said to be an entrepreneur who rented out an apartment to Studio Total, the Swedish PR company behind the escapade.

Mazetti called the charges "ridiculous".

"I think it's just another proof of the irrationality and evil mechanics of a dictatorship. They are not charged with anything under the law. They are charged with ridiculous crimes like aiding us to pass the border though the only thing Anton (Suryapin) did for instance was to publish a picture of a bear," he said.

Mazetti said that by explaining how they were able to cross the border, avoid military systems and about their visits to Minsk they would prove that the two men had nothing to do with the stunt.

The Swedish plane dropped the toy bears near the town of Ivenets and near the capital Minsk, each carrying a message urging the Belarussian leadership to show greater respect for human rights.

Mazetti said the teddy bear drop was a part of the fight for freedom of speech in the post-Soviet country and that Lukashenko's reaction to the stunt was a sign of weakness.

"Right now (Belarus President Alexander) Lukashenko is very pressed. He is acting irrational but our goal is to have freedom of speech and democracy in Belarus. When that is achieved, we are happy and in the long term our little campaign can only be a small part of that but as far as things have gone so far I'm in one way happy that he is acting more and more hysterical almost. It's a sign of weakness and he has not shown that kind of weakness actually in a long time," he said.