STOCKHOLM (Reuters) - Belarus has expelled Sweden's ambassador over actions to support democracy, Sweden's Foreign Minister Carl Bildt said on Friday.
A plane chartered by a Swedish public relations firm dropped hundreds of teddy bears over Belarus on July 4 in a pro-democracy stunt, prompting President Alexander Lukashenko to sack his air defense chief and the head of the border guards.
"The Lukashenko regime in Belarus has decided to expel our ambassador," Bildt told reporters. "They have made accusations against the ambassador. They are groundless. Fundamentally, this is about Sweden being engaged in democracy and human rights in Belarus."
Bildt said Belarus' incoming ambassador to Sweden would not be welcome and that two further Belarussian diplomats in Sweden had been asked to leave.
He said Belarus had quoted meetings by Ambassador Stefan Eriksson with the Belarussian opposition as one reason for expelling him. Another was donating books on human rights to a university library in the Belarussian capital Minsk.
"So, it's ridiculous accusations," Bildt said.
In Minsk, Foreign Ministry spokesman Andrei Savinykh said the Swedish ambassador had not been expelled, but his accreditation had not been extended.
"Mr. Eriksson has worked in Minsk for seven years. In this time his activity has been directed not at strengthening Belarussian-Swedish relations but at destroying them," he told Reuters by telephone.
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.
Smarting from the humiliation of the teddy bear intrusion, Lukashenko sacked his air defense chief and the head of the border guards on Tuesday and reprimanded several other senior state security officials.
He told the incoming border guards chief on Thursday 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 the former Soviet republic to show greater respect for human rights.
(Additional reporting by Andrei Makhovsky in Minsk; Editing by Janet Lawrence)