Teddy Bear Paratroopers
An image of the Teddy Bear Paratroopers

A convoy of teddy bear paratroopers dropped on Belarus have triggered an international diplomatic crisis, with the closure of two embassies, the sacking of two generals and the arrest of two men.

All Swedish diplomats, including the ambassador, Stefan Eriksson, have been expelled from eastern Europe's last dictatorship after 800 teddy bears carrying pro-democracy messages were dropped from an aircraft by a Swedish public relations firm.

"[President Alexander] Lukashenko is now throwing all Swedish diplomats out of Belarus. His fear of human rights reaching new heights," said Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt on Twitter.

Lukashenko reportedly went berserk after a plane chartered by Studio Total flew from Lithuania into Belarusian airspace to drop its fluffy cargo over the town of Ivenets, a few miles from the capital Minsk.

Launched with little black parachutes, the teddy bears bore labels calling for freedom of speech and human rights.

Defence minister warned

"How do you explain the provocation with the airplane that not only crossed our borders but entered the territory of Belarus unpunished? Was this the stupidity of specific actors or systemic mistakes in the defence of the airspace?" Lukashenko told his security officials, according to a government website.

Belarus's air force and border security chiefs were subsequently sacked and an official warning was delivered to the minister of defence and his deputy.

Belarus then refused to renew the Swedish ambassador's accreditation on the grounds that he had allegedly held meetings with opposition leaders.

The accusations were defined as "ridiculous" and "groundless" by Bildt. The real reason for the diplomatic incident, he said, was Sweden's commitment to human rights in Belarus.

"The accusations are without foundation. That Sweden is broadly committed to democracy and human rights in Belarus is no secret, and Ambassador Eriksson has represented this Swedish policy in a creditable and important way," he said.

"Sweden can be proud of its role championing human rights in Belarus," Britain's foreign secretary William Hague said on Twitter.

In a tit-for-tat move, Sweden ousted two senior Belarussian diplomats and refused to admit the new ambassador and Lukashenko responded by giving Sweden three weeks' notice to repatriate all its embassy staff.

Blogger faces up to 7 years of jail

Two people were arrested in Belarus after the parachuting incident, suspected of complicity in "illegal intrusion".

Blogger and journalism student Anton Suryapin, who posted pictures of the teddy bears on his blog, and real estate agent Sergei Basharimov, who rented an apartment in Minsk to a Studio Total member, could face up to seven years in jail if found guilty.

"Anyone who knows anything about Studio Total knows that we're about the most irresponsible people there are," said Studio Total.

"We expected that the plane would be forced down," founder Per Cromwell told the New York Times.

The plane was piloted Cromwell's cousin, Tomas Mazetti, and their associate, Hannah Frey. They reportedly wore fuzzy bear masks during the flight.

Lukashenko has ruled Belarus with an iron grip since 1994.