Air intruders must be shot down, Belarus leader says
MINSK (Reuters) - Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko, smarting after a pro-democracy stunt in which teddy bears were dropped into Belarus, told his new border guards chief on Thursday to use weapons to stop any more unlawful air intrusions by foreigners.
About 800 toy bears were dropped near the town of Ivenets from a light aircraft, chartered by a Swedish public relations firm, which crossed into Belarussian air space from Lithuania on July 4, the day after Belarus marked independence day.
Each bear carried a message urging the hardline former Soviet republic to show greater respect for human rights.
Lukashenko told incoming border guards head Alexander Boyechko, whom he appointed after sacking his predecessor on Tuesday over the bears incident: "Unlawful violations of state borders must not be allowed.
"They must be stopped by all force and means, including weapons, regardless of anything. The border guards must prove their loyalty to the fatherland," he said.
As well as sacking Boyechko's predecessor, Lukashenko also dismissed the air defense chief and reprimanded senior state security officials.
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.
Authorities in Minsk denied that the teddy bear drop had taken place until Lukashenko confirmed the incident last week.
In 1995 there was an outcry in the United States when a Belarus helicopter shot down a hot air balloon near Bereza, 60 miles east of the Polish border, killing its two-man crew who were U.S. nationals.
Belarussian media say that state security is holding a local blogger named as Anton Suryapin after photographs were published of the toy bears.
Suryapin's father, Andrei, told Reuters: "When we learned that our son had been detained for photographs of teddy bears we were in shock. This is an absurd situation. It's obvious they were looking for a fall guy. Until this happened to our son, I didn't even know that such things happened in the country."
Lukashenko, whose comments were reported by his media service, defended his actions. "There should be no surprise here. On the contrary, you were lightly punished. If it had been Soviet times you would have been put behind bars," he said.