Belarus says it is pulling its remaining embassy staff from Sweden amid a row over a pro-democracy stunt involving teddy bears. Sweden has been given until the end of the month to withdraw its diplomats from Minsk.
The dispute between Belarus and Sweden over an air drop of teddy bears carrying pro-democracy slogans from a plane chartered by a Swedish public relations firm has escalated.
The Belarusian foreign ministry said on Wednesday that Minsk was bringing home its remaining staff from its embassy in Stockholm because Sweden had expelled two more diplomats and had refused to allow a new Belarusian ambassador to take up his post.
In a statement, the ministry said: "In this connection, the Belarusian side has been forced to take the decision to withdraw its embassy in Sweden and bring back all its (embassy) staff to Belarus."
"At the same time... the Swedish side is asked to withdraw its embassy from the Republic of Belarus before Aug. 30," the statement said.
In a Twitter comment, Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt said: "(President Alexander) Lukashenko is now throwing all Swedish diplomats out of Belarus. His fear of human rights reaching hew heights."
Diplomats sent home
Belarus expelled Sweden's ambassador on August 3 over the incident, in which about 800 toy bears were dropped on parachutes near the Belarusian town of Ivenets and the capital, Minsk, on July 4. Each bear carried a message urging the Belarusian government to improve its human rights record.
Sweden reacted to the expulsion of its ambassador, saying it would not welcome a new ambassador named by Minsk to replace an envoy who left the post several weeks ago. It also withdrew residency permits for two Belarusian diplomats.
Belarus took more than three weeks to confirm the teddy-bear incident had taken place. Lukashenko subsequently sacked his air defense chief and reprimanded the state security agency for lapses in vigilance.
He also told the incoming border guards chief not to hesitate to use weapons to stop any future air intrusions from over the border.
Lukashenko has come under frequent Western criticism for his harsh treatment of the political opposition in his country.
tj/slk (Reuters, AFP)