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Belarus sacks top brass over teddy bear scandal

MYT 1:25:00 AM

MINSK (Reuters) - Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko on Tuesday sacked his air defence chief and the head of the border guards for failing to stop a Swedish plane drop hundreds of teddy bears over the hardline state in a pro-democracy stunt.

The plane, chartered by a Swedish public relations firm, crossed into Belarussian air space from Lithuania on July 4 and dropped about 800 of the toy bears near the town of Ivenets.

Each bear carried a message calling for Belarus to show greater respect for individual human rights.

In a statement on Tuesday, the presidential press service said that Dmitry Pakhmelkin, the country's air defence chief, and Igor Rachkovsky, the head of the border guards, had been dismissed "for not properly carrying out their duties in safeguarding Belarussian national security."

Other senior state security officials had been reprimanded too, the statement said.

In power since 1994 and once described as Europe's last dictator by the U.S. administration of George W. Bush, Lukashenko has been ostracised by the West because of a crackdown on his political opponents.

Authorities in Minsk initially denied that the air drop of teddy bears had taken place until Lukashenko finally confirmed the incident last week.

He made it clear that heads would roll over the stunt last Thursday when he said: "This plane was discovered in time, but why did the (air defence) authorities not intercept the flight? ... Come on lads. We are all grown up. The guilty ones have to answer for this."

(Reporting by Andrei Makhovsky; Writing By Richard Balmforth; Editing by Andrew Osborn)

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