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STOCKHOLM - Sweden's ties with Belarus soured further Wednesday as Minsk expelled all Swedish diplomats and closed its Stockholm mission, in a rift over human rights following a stunt involving teddy bears.
President Alexander Lukashenko "is now throwing all Swedish diplomats out of Belarus. His fear of human rights reaching new heights," Sweden's Foreign Minister Carl Bildt wrote on Twitter.
The authoritarian Lukashenko "is carrying on like the little punk that he is," Bildt also told Swedish news agency TT.
European Union ambassadors will hold an emergency meeting Friday to decide how to react, an EU source in Brussels said.
Bildt last week said ambassador Stefan Eriksson, who took up the post in Minsk in 2008, was being 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 the envoy who left the post several weeks ago, and withdrew residency permits for two Belarus diplomats who were asked to leave the Scandinavian country.
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 gave Stockholm until August 30 to remove all of its diplomats from the ex-Soviet state the United States once dubbed Europe's last dictatorship.
The tit-for-tat moves 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.
Lukashenko dismissed the country's top border control official and the top air force commander after the incident orchestrated by a Swedish advertising firm.
Bildt conceded last week the ambassador's expulsion could be linked to the widely-reported teddy-bear incident.
"There will be an emergency meeting of the European Union ambassadors Friday to decide on appropriate measures," the EU source said Wednesday, adding that the talks would be held in Brussels.
Lukashenko's re-election in December 2010, marred by fraud, had 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 democratization process make the cooperation particularly challenging," the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA) said on its website.
Bildt tweeted on Wednesday, "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", Bildt said last week.
Britain's Foreign Secretary William Hague on Wednesday hailed the Swedish efforts, also taking to Twitter.
"Sweden can be proud of its role championing human rights in Belarus," he said.
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.
Belarus is under a raft of sanctions by the European Union over the plight of political prisoners in the country.