Belarus is recalling its ambassador to Sweden and its entire embassy staff in the latest round of tense moves, following a "teddy bear drop" on Belarusian soil meant to call attention to the country's human-rights record.
Wednesday's announcement followed moves last week by both Belarus and Sweden to remove several diplomats from each other's embassies. Officials have not directly linked the dismissals to the teddy bear protest by Swedish activists.
Teddy Bear Invasion
The bear controversy began July 4 when two Swedish activists in a small plane dropped hundreds of teddy bears over the cities of Ivenets and Minsk. The toys bore messages urging Belarus to show greater respect for human rights. Still photos and video taken by the activists during their stunt were later published on the Internet.
Tomas Mazetti and Hannah Frey with a human-rights message bearing teddy similar to ones they dropped in Belarusian airspace, Germany, Aug. 1, 2012.
The action was seen as a great embarrassment to the Belarusian government, which did not confirm the event until three weeks later, when it noted the Swedes had crossed Lithuania into heavily guarded Belarusian airspace without permission.
A third Swedish activist, who watched from the ground, told The New York Times that they expected the plane would be forced down, but instead it crossed out of the country safely after making the drops.
Hardline President Alexander Lukashenko last week fired two of his top defense officials after border guards failed to intercept the plane.
On Tuesday, a statement from Belarusian security officials said two Belarussian citizens, Sergei Basharimov and Anton Suryapin, have been arrested and formally charged with involvement in the teddy bear incident. While Minsk is tight-lipped on the arrests, Basharimov is thought to have rented an apartment to the Swedish activists. Suryapin is a photojournalist.
The Belarusian police also said the activists, who work for a Swedish advertising firm, are being summoned for questioning on charges of trespassing.
Ties between Belarus and Western Europe have grown increasingly strained over Belarus's human-rights record. The European Union and the United States increased sanctions on the Belarusian government after its violent crackdown on protesters after Lukashenko won a fourth term in December 2010 elections.
Some information for this report was provided by AP, AFP and Reuters.