MINSK, Belarus (AP) — It's probably the first time in history that teddy bears have defeated generals.
Belarus' authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko has sacked the nation's air defense chief and the head of the Border Guards service after a Swedish light plane intruded on the country's airspace and dropped in hundreds of teddy bears decked out in parachutes and slogans supporting human rights.
Officials in the ex-Soviet state denied the July 4 incident until Lukashenko called a government meeting last week to scold authorities for allowing a "provocation."
"Why didn't the top brass stop that flight, whom did they feel pity for?" he exclaimed.
On Tuesday, the Belarusian ruler fired the two generals and reprimanded several other top security officials, his office said.
Belarusian authorities also have arrested a journalism student who placed pictures of the parachuting teddy bears on his personal website and a real estate agent who offered an apartment to the plane's Swedish crew. The two men were accused of assisting border violators and face up to seven years in prison if convicted.
Thomas Mazetti and Hannah Frey, the two Swedes behind the stunt, said they wanted to show support for Belarusian human rights activists and to embarrass the country's military, a pillar of Lukashenko's power.
"Hopefully, we've made people more aware in the world and that there will be more people supporting Belarusian people," Frey said.
The pair said they were inspired by similar protests staged by Belarusian activists, who have at times arranged plush toys in such a way that they appeared to be protesting the regime.
"Our campaign was a campaign in support of that. An airlift in support of the teddy bears, from teddy bears around the world," Mazetti said.
Lukashenko has ruled Belarus, a nation of 10 million, since 1994. He has stifled dissent and independent media, earning the nickname of "Europe's last dictator."
He also has boasted about the capabilities of a joint air defense system that Belarus has formed with Russia, saying it provides a reliable shield against purported threats from NATO.
Valery Karbalevich, an independent Minsk-based political analyst, said purging the generals might be a way to save face in front of Moscow. The Kremlin may use the incident to try to put a Russian general in charge of the joint air defense system, he said.
"It looks like Moscow is cranking up pressure and demanding an answer as to why the much-acclaimed air defense system is riddled with holes," Karbalevich said.
Anatoly Lebedko, the head of Belarus' opposition United Civil Party, warned that Lukashenko may use the incident to crack down on dissidents in the run-up to a parliamentary election next month.
Jordans reported from Berlin.
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- President Alexander Lukashenko