STOCKHOLM (Reuters) - Belarus has expelled Sweden's ambassador over his actions to support democracy, Sweden's Foreign Minister Carl Bildt said on Friday, as the European Union's foreign policy chief said the bloc would consider responding with "appropriate" measures.
The diplomatic dispute flared up after a plane chartered by a Swedish public relations firm dropped hundreds of teddy bears over Belarus on July 4 in a pro-democracy stunt, prompting President Alexander Lukashenko to sack his air defence chief and the head of the border guards.
It took Lukashenko, a former Soviet collective farm manager, weeks to confirm the incident and Stockholm's ambassador appears to have been told to leave soon after the Belarussian leader spoke publicly about the scandal for the first time.
The expulsion marks an escalation in the dispute and is likely to worsen already strained relations between the EU and Belarus and further isolate the small former Soviet republic on the world stage.
"The Lukashenko regime in Belarus has decided to expel our ambassador," Bildt told reporters on Friday. "They have made accusations against the ambassador. They are groundless. Fundamentally, this is about Sweden being engaged in democracy and human rights in Belarus."
Bildt said Belarus' incoming ambassador to Sweden would not be welcome and that two other Belarussian diplomats in Sweden had been asked to leave.
Catherine Ashton, the EU's foreign policy chief, said in a statement the Belarussian decision "runs counter to norms of relations", and promised to refer the matter to the 27-nation bloc's Political and Security Committee so it could consider "appropriate EU measures".
Bildt said Belarus had cited meetings by Ambassador Stefan Eriksson with the Belarussian opposition as one reason for expelling him. Another reason given was his donating books on human rights to a university library in the Belarussian capital Minsk.
"So, it's ridiculous accusations," Bildt said.
ACCREDITATION NOT EXTENDED
In Minsk, Foreign Ministry spokesman Andrei Savinykh said the Swedish ambassador had not been expelled, but said his accreditation had not been extended.
"Mr. Eriksson has worked in Minsk for seven years. In this time his activity has been directed not at strengthening Belarussian-Swedish relations but at destroying them," he told Reuters by telephone.
In power since 1994 and once described as Europe's last dictator by the U.S. administration of George W. Bush, Lukashenko has been ostracized by the West because of a crackdown on his political opponents.
Smarting from the humiliation of the teddy bear intrusion, Lukashenko sacked his air defence chief and the head of the border guards on Tuesday and reprimanded several other senior state security officials.
He told the incoming border guards chief on Thursday not to hesitate to use weapons to stop any future air intrusions from abroad.
The Swedish plane dropped about 800 toy bears near the town of Ivenets and near the capital Minsk, each carrying a message urging the former Soviet republic to show greater respect for human rights.
(Additional reporting by Andrei Makhovsky in Minsk and from Foo Yun Chee in Brussels; Editing by Andrew Osborn)