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Belarus, Sweden kick out ambassadors as teddy bear war heats up

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The teddy bears — 879 of them — landing by parachute in a residential area in Minsk, Belarus, on July 4, the country's Independence Day.

Sweden and Belarus are locked in a diplomatic war over hundreds of cute, fuzzy teddy bears — a threat so menacing that two Belarusan generals have been fired and the countries have rejected each other's ambassadors.

M. Alex Johnson M. Alex Johnson is a reporter for NBC News. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

The strife over the stuffies began July 4 — which is also Belarus' Independence Day. 

A light plane flew over Minsk from Sweden and dropped 879 teddy bears, which carried pro-democracy messages. Sweden has long been open about its desire to see democracy take root in Belarus, a former Soviet republic led by a Soviet-style strongman, Alexander Lukashenko. 

Belarus didn't publicly acknowledge the airdrop until last week, when Lukashenko criticized military authorities for allowing the plane to enter Belarusan air space and carry out its "provocation."


After that, action was swift: Lukashenko fired the generals in charge of air defense and the border patrol Tuesday, and authorities arrested two civilians — a journalism student who put pictures of the teddy bears on his website and a property manager who offered an apartment to the plane's Swedish pilots, two pro-democracy advertising agents.

The two men were accused of assisting border violators and face up to seven years in prison if convicted, said Amnesty International, which declared them prisoners of conscience.

Lukashenko ordered his new border guard chief to "stop any and all air intrusions "by all force and means, including weapons, regardless of anything," Reuters reported.

"The border guards must prove their loyalty to the fatherland," he said.

Friday, the Swedish Foreign Ministry claimed that Belarus had expelled its ambassador, Stefan Eriksson, in retaliation for the airdrop, calling it "a serious breach of the norms for relations between states."

Belarus denied that it had expelled the diplomat — it said it had merely decided "not to renew his accreditation" because "his activities were aimed not at the strengthening of relations between Belarus and Sweden, but on their erosion."

In a statement, Sweden responded with its own tat for Belarus' tit: 

"The Embassy of Belarus in Stockholm will be informed during the day that the proposed new Belarus Ambassador is not welcome here and that the residence permits in Sweden of two of its representatives will be withdrawn."

The latest move by Belarus — which said it would be "forced to react adequately" — was still awaited Friday afternoon.

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