Belarus bails two over airborne teddy bear stunt

Photographer Anton Suryapin (2nd R) toasts with his relatives and acquaintances at their house in Slutsk.

MINSK - Belarus on Friday freed on bail two men accused of helping Swedish rights activists who illegally flew into Belarusian territory to release teddy bears carrying protest messages.

The two men, journalist Anton Suryapin and estate agent Sergei Basharimov, each risk up to seven years in jail after being listed as suspects in aiding and abetting the flight.

They have been freed on bail after signing undertakings not to leave the country, which is under a raft of sanctions imposed by the European Union over the plight of its political prisoners.

In the stunt last month, the three activists from a Swedish advertising agency illegally flew a plane into Belarusian airspace and dropped hundreds of teddy bears attached to little parachutes carrying signs calling for freedom of speech and human rights.

Basharimov rented out an apartment to the Swedes, while Suryapin published photographs of the teddy bears on his website.

"I don't consider myself guilty or involved in this case. The fact that I managed to publish these unique shots I consider is my success as a journalist," Suryapin told AFP at his home in the town of Slutsk south of Minsk.

"I did not know those Swedes. The fact that we were held in a KGB prison only in order to make the Swedes come is absurd, I think," he said.

Suryapin, 20, was detained on July 13 after the security services searched his home and confiscated his computer. He was later placed under arrest as a suspect.

Belarus's security service, still known as the KGB, has summoned the three activists. They declined, inviting Belarus strongman Alexander Lukashenko to visit them in Sweden instead.

The stunt led Lukashenko to fire his top border control official and air force commander and sparked a diplomatic row between Minsk and Stockholm.

On August 3, Minsk expelled the Swedish ambassador to Belarus alleging that he was trying to "destroy" ties, a move Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt conceded could be linked to the teddy bear incident.

Sweden retaliated, refusing to accept the proposed replacement of an outgoing embassador and withdrawing residency permits for two Belarusian diplomats, who were asked to leave the Scandinavian country.

On August 8, Minsk announced it was expelling all Swedish diplomats, giving Sweden until August 30 to remove them and close its Stockholm mission.

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