Belarus generals sacked over Swedish teddy bear stunt

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Media captionAn independent photographer was detained in Belarus for posting images of teddy bears on the internet

The president of Belarus has sacked his air force and border security chiefs because a Swedish light plane managed to drop teddy bears into the country with labels calling for freedom.

President Alexander Lukashenko expressed fury over the incident, which happened on 4 July.

Only last week did the official media admit that it had actually happened.

Mr Lukashenko has cracked down hard on political opponents. His re-election in 2010 was marred by reports of abuses.

An official statement from the president's office on Tuesday said the Chairman of the State Border Committee, Maj Gen Igor Rachkovsky, and Air Defence Commander Maj Gen Dmitry Pakhmelkin had been dismissed for failing in their duties.

The plane, chartered by a Swedish public relations firm called Studio Total, dropped hundreds of the little teddy bears near the town of Ivenets and on the outskirts of the capital Minsk. It crossed into Belarusian air space from Lithuania.

The bears came down with little parachutes and had labels calling for freedom of speech and human rights.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption President Lukashenko has kept many Soviet-era symbols of state power

Belarusian police have arrested two Belarusians suspected of aiding and abetting the Swedish stunt - journalism student Anton Suryapin and Sergei Basharimov, an estate agent. If found guilty they could face up to seven years in jail.

At a meeting with military commanders last week President Lukashenko asked angrily "Why didn't the commanders intercept that flight?

"Who did they sympathise with? Was it bungling by particular officials or a failure in the state's air defence system?"

A BBC Russian Service reporter in Minsk, Tatyana Melnichuk, says the state of Belarusian air defences has been widely discussed in local independent media, as well as in the Moscow press. Yet until last week the Belarusian state media referred only to an "invented" story about a Swedish air-drop.

Belarusian analysts say the president's anger was fuelled by Moscow's indignation, because Russia has helped develop the country's anti-aircraft defences. The former Soviet Union was embarrassed in 1987 when a German pilot, Matthias Rust, flew under the radar and landed a light plane in Red Square.

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