MINSK (Reuters) - Belarus said on Wednesday 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, who has been in power since 1994 and is on poor terms with the West because of his harsh policies towards the political opposition.
The Belarussian ambassador to Stockholm was also withdrawn.
The foreign ministry said Minsk was pulling out its remaining embassy staff because Sweden had aggravated the situation by expelling two more diplomats and had refused to allow a new Belarussian ambassador to take up his post.
“In this connection, the Belarussian side has been forced to take the decision to withdraw its embassy in Sweden and bring back all its (embassy) staff to Belarus,” the statement said.
“At the same time ... the Swedish side is asked to withdraw its embassy from the Republic of Belarus before August 30,” it said.
In Stockholm, Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt said in a Twitter comment: “Lukashenko is now throwing all Swedish diplomats out of Belarus. His fear of human rights reaching new heights.”
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 Tuesday on its website www.kgb.by, the Belarussian KGB state security service said two men, Anton Suryapin and Sergei Basharimov, had been detained on suspicion of complicity in the July 4 “illegal intrusion”.
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.
Additional reporting by Mia Stanley in Stockholm; Writing By Richard Balmforth; Editing by Roger Atwood