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Belarus teddy bear 'bombers' unmasked

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Belarus teddy bear 'bombers' unmasked
00:49 CEST+02:00
The Swedes who say they dropped hundreds of 'pro-free speech' teddy bears over Belarus on Wednesday have come forward amid reports of stuffed bears being found on the ground in Belarus and a confirmed airspace violation.

Representatives for Studio Total, the Swedish PR agency group behind the stunt, also released new video footage of the daring flight.

The footage is shot in the cramped cockpit of the Jodel single-engine aircraft which, according to Swedish PR agency Studio Total, took off early Wednesday morning from Lithuania and made an unauthorized flight into restricted Belarusian airspace en route to Minsk.

The pilots, their faces covered in teddy bear masks, can be seen opening the plane's window and throwing out small teddy bears wrapped in black parachutes and holding small signs with pro free-speech slogans.

Footage shot from beneath the plane's fuselage reveals the plane passing over what appears to be the village of Ivyanets and its trademark Orthodox Church of Euphrosyne, the same village and landmark which appear in previously released video footage of the stunt shot from the ground.

According to Tomas Mazetti of Studio Total, who on Thursday also revealed himself to be one of the pilots featured in the video, the plane passed over Ivyanets around 7am on Wednesday morning on its way back to Lithuania.

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"We made it to the southwestern part of Minsk and dropped about two-thirds of our teddy bears there, but started heading back early after we got a call on the radio in Russian," Mazetti told The Local.

"The rest we threw out sporadically along the way, including several over Ivyanets."

Despite claims from Belarusian authorities that the flight never took place, reports emerged on Thursday from residents in Ivyanets appearing to confirm the daring publicity stunt actually took place.

Speaking with the Belarus Service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), several Ivyanets residents told of seeing an airplane fly over the town early on Wednesday morning, droping a number of dark-coloured objects.

Two witnesses also said they had recovered parachute-wearing teddy bears with "foreign" messages.

A number of the stuffed animals had been removed by municipal cleaning crews, according to RFE/RL,

Sanitary worker Svyatlana Turko told RFE/RL that several of the teddy-bear "packages" had been brought to the local police station.

Related images of teddy bear drop from Studio Total:

And on Thursday afternoon, the Lithuanian Armed Forces confirmed that the country's airspace had been violated on Wednesday, but refrained from releasing any more specific details that could definitively link the violation with the return of the Studio Total plane to Lithuania.

"Lithuania's Armed Forces registered a breach of air-space regulations in the Lithuanian air-space," military spokesperson Skomantas Povilionis told the Baltic News Service, according to English-language Lithuanian news site 15min.lt.

"An investigation is underway in connection to the incident to establish the circumstances. We cannot give an answer whether the violation has to do with the incident reported in the media."

The Swedish media's initial scepticism over the elaborate publicity coup prompted Mazetti to issue a detailed statement on Thursday in which he revealed more details about the flight as well as the extent of Studio Total's role in orchestrating the complex stunt.

"Early yesterday (Wednesday) morning, I, Tomas Mazetti and Hannah Lina Frey from Studio Total flew over Minsk. Linda Karlsson organized our troops in Belarus and Lithuania, while Per Cromwell carried out a rather spectacular feat of photography in protected Belarusian territory and waited in a car that would pick us up if we were shot down," Mazetti wrote in a statement published on the website of Sveriges Television (SVT).

"We spent a total of 1 hour 20 minutes in restricted airspace, without knowing whether the Belarus air defences would react or if we might end up in a Belarusian prison. This risk was very real for us. But, like the Belarusian opposition, which is DAILY subjected to threats of violence and reprisals, we thought it was a risk worth taking."

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Mazetti then expressed his frustration over doubts expressed by Swedish media outlets, some of which referred to the entire event as a "hoax".

He also admitted that he and his colleagues at Studio Total had "misjudged" how the incident would be viewed by the press.

"We thought we had done something different enough and decided NOT to release our names or do personal interviews so that the focus would instead be on the principle issue: that people in Belarus are imprisoned and tortured for criticizing the regime or demanding freedom of expression," Mazetti wrote.

The difficulty of obtaining independent verification of the flight, combined with Studio Total's reputation for arranging elaborate hoaxes, didn't make it easy for Swedish media to run with the story.

Speaking with The Local later on Thursday, Mazetti was struck by the irony of the situation.

"When you do something fake, everyone reports on it, but when you do something real, people are sceptical," he said, referring to the massive media response to a previous Studio Total campaign featuring what turned out to be a fictitious school of sex.

"The whole thing has been a little crazy. I sort of blame myself. We maybe weren't that organized, but you never know how these things turn out."

He cited the cockpit video he and co-pilot Frey recorded as crucial evidence in helping to convince sceptics.

Swedish Belarus expert Martin Uggla, who initially called the stunt "improbable", had a change of heart after seeing the video footage, telling media trade publication Resumé on Thursday he now thought the flight over Belarus had likely taken place.

Despite the new evidence, the Belarusian military continues to maintain the pro-democracy teddy bear drop was a hoax and the videos were faked.

"Experts have already discovered gross visual falsification in these videos and this is proof of the purely provocative nature of this information that's being disseminated," Belarusian defence ministry spokesperson Uladzimir Makarau told RFE/RL.

The Belarus defence ministry said further that, while it was investigating reports about the flight, "there are no facts to confirm the crossing of the state border of the Republic of Belarus in its airspace", the English-language version of the Russian news site Pravda reported.

According to Studio Total, the agency spent close to a year and roughly 1 million kronor ($143,000) to plan and carry out the pro-free speech teddy bear drop.

Both Mazetti and Frey underwent pilot training in preparation for the flight and initial plans called for 1,000 plush bears holding pro-free speech slogans to parachute down over Minsk, with the presidential palace of Alexander Lukashenko as the primary target.

The initiative was meant to draw attention to Belarusian opposition groups such as Charter 97 and "Tell the Truth!" which are fighting for free speech in Belarus - a country ruled since 1994 by president Alexander Lukashenko, who is often referred to as "Europe's last dictator".

David Landes

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