Belarus expels Swedish diplomats, recalls own envoys

STOCKHOLM - Sweden's ties with Belarus soured further on Wednesday as Minsk expelled all Swedish diplomats and closed its mission in Stockholm, five days after the ex-Soviet state expelled the Swedish ambassador.

President Alexander Lukashenko "is now throwing all Swedish diplomats out of Belarus. His fear of human rights reaching new heights", Foreign Minister Carl Bildt wrote on Twitter. European Union (EU) ambassadors will hold an emergency meeting Friday on the issue, an EU source in Brussels said.

"There will be an emergency meeting of the European Union ambassadors Friday to decide on appropriate measures," the source said on condition of anonymity, adding that the meeting would be held in Brussels.

Mr Bildt last week said ambassador Stefan Eriksson, who took up the post in Minsk in 2008, was expelled because of his pro-rights stance and meetings he had with the Belarus opposition.

Stockholm retaliated immediately, saying it would not welcome a new ambassador named by Minsk to replace an envoy who left the post several weeks ago, and withdrew residency permits for two Belarus diplomats who were asked to leave the Scandinavian country.

Belarus foreign ministry spokesman Andrei Savinykh denied last week that Eriksson had been expelled, saying instead in more diplomatic language that "a decision was made not to renew his credentials".

Mr Eriksson's "activity was aimed not at strengthening Belarusian-Swedish relations but destroying them", he said.

On Wednesday, Minsk said in a statement it was "forced to take a decision to recall its diplomatic staff from Sweden and return its employees to Belarus", stressing however it was not severing diplomatic ties with Stockholm.

It also gave Stockholm until Aug 30 to remove all of its diplomats from Minsk. Sweden has been actively pushing for democracy in Belarus.

Lukashenko's re-electionin December 2010, marred by fraud, led Stockholm to focus its Belarus strategy on democracy, human rights and equality.

"The state-run international development policy and the lack of a clear democratisation process make the cooperation particularly challenging," the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida) said on its website.

Mr Bildt reiterated Sweden's commitment to Belarusian human rights on Wednesday, writing on Twitter: "We remain strongly committed to the freedom of Belarus and all its citizens. They deserve the freedoms and the rights of the rest of Europe."

By meeting with members of the opposition, ambassador Eriksson "followed the policies that Sweden defends", Mr Bildt said last week.

Sweden's embassy in Minsk opened in 2008. Prior to that, the country was represented by its mission in Moscow, which had a representative in Minsk.

The embassy counts four diplomats and a SIDA representative, as well as a handful of local staff. "Two or three diplomats are currently there," ministry spokesman Joerle told AFP.

The ambassador's expulsion last week came after Swedish activists said they had illegally flown a plane into Belarus early last month and dropped hundreds of teddy bears attached to little parachutes carrying signs calling for freedom of speech and human rights.

Mr Lukashenko dismissed the country's top border control official and the top air force commander after the incident orchestrated by a Swedish advertising firm.

Mr Bildt conceded the expulsion could be linked to the widely-reported teddy-bear incident and called it "scandalous".

Belarus is under a raft of sanctions by the EU over the plight of political prisoners in the country.

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