Belarus charges two over teddy bear air drop

MINSK Tue Aug 7, 2012 5:48pm EDT

Tomas Mazetti, who piloted a plane that dropped teddy bears over Belarus, poses for pictures in Berlin, August 1, 2012. REUTERS/Thomas Peter

Tomas Mazetti, who piloted a plane that dropped teddy bears over Belarus, poses for pictures in Berlin, August 1, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Thomas Peter

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MINSK (Reuters) - Two Belarussians have been charged with involvement in a pro-democracy stunt in which a Swedish light aircraft dropped hundreds of teddy bears over Belarus last month, the KGB state security service said on Tuesday.

The stunt, mounted by a Swedish public relations company, led to Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko sacking his air defense chief and the head of the border guards, and caused a diplomatic rift in which Belarus expelled Sweden's ambassador.

In a statement on its website www.kgb.by, the Belarussian KGB said two men, Anton Suryapin and Sergei Basharimov, had been detained on suspicion of complicity in the July 4 "illegal intrusion" by a Swedish light aircraft and formally charged.

Suryapin, who is aged about 20, had earlier been identified as a blogger who was arrested after photographs of the toy bears were published on the Internet.

Basharimov is said to be an entrepreneur who rented out an apartment to Studio Total, the Swedish PR company behind the escapade.

The KGB statement asked Swedish citizens who took part in the stunt to travel to Belarus to aid "an objective investigation."

The incident was a humiliation for Lukashenko, a hardliner who has been in power in the former Soviet republic since 1994 and is on poor terms with the West because of his harsh policies towards the political opposition. It took Belarus more than three weeks to confirm the incident.

The subsequent expulsion of Sweden's ambassador has worsened Belarus's already strained relations with the European Union and further isolated it on the world stage.

After sacking two generals and reprimanding senior state security officials, Lukashenko told the incoming border guards chief 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 Belarus to show greater respect for human rights.

(Writing By Richard Balmforth, editing by Tim Pearce)

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