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Belarus foreign minister bears brunt of teddy tale

President Alexander Lukashenko has sacked his foreign minister in the aftermath of a Swedish free speech stunt involving teddy bears. Sergei Martynov will be replaced by Vladimir Makey, already a top official.

A statement from Lukashenko's office in Minsk said that Martynov was removed from his foreign minister post so he could be "transferred to other work." He took up the foreign minister's job in 2003.

The dismissal follows a dispute between Sweden and Belarus after a marketing company parachuted teddy bears bearing messages endorsing free speech and human rights into the eastern European country. The Studio Total company later said that it had received a summons from the government in Belarus, alleging that it threatened them with "two years correctional work" unless they attended within 10 days. The company also said it had no intention of going and accused Lukashenko's administration of "bad manners."

The government in Minsk made no mention of this incident on Monday, although Lukashenko sacked two generals - including the officer in charge of air defense - in the aftermath of the teddy bears' parachute drop. The authoritarian leader, whose government was once labeled "Europe's last dictatorship" by President George W. Bush's administration, also expelled Swedish diplomats in the aftermath.

Sweden responded by refusing to welcome a replacement ambassador who was set to arrive in Stockholm. The Swedish government revoked the residency permits of a pair of other diplomats from Belarus and Foreign Minister Carl Bildt said on Twitter Monday it was "interesting" that Martynov had been sacked.

Martynov's replacement, Vladimir Makey, is five years his junior at 54. Makey was formerly Lukashenko's chief of staff, a powerful position owing to Lukashenko's rather direct control of foreign and domestic policy.

Lukashenko has been in office since 1994. He won re-election to a fourth term in December 2010 with a landslide majority, but faced subsequent public protests and allegations of vote rigging. The election and its aftermath prompted further sanctions from Western countries, with the European Union most recently broadening the scope of its sanctions in March this year.

msh/pfd (AFP, dpa, Reuters)