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Lukashenko confirms Swedish teddy bear flight

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Lukashenko confirms Swedish teddy bear flight
16:07 CEST+02:00
After weeks of denial, Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko has admitted that a light airplane crossed into the country's airspace on July 4th, reported to have been piloted by a Swedish PR firm in a pro-democracy stunt.

"How can you explain that a light aircraft, which not only crossed the border, but also with impunity, invaded the territory of the Republic of Belarus? It is first and foremost a matter of the safety of our citizens," Lukashenko said at meeting on Thursday concerning the modernisation of the armed forces, according to news agency Interfax.

The light aircraft was flown by Swedish PR firm Studio Total whose mission was to disperse small teddy bears wrapped in black parachutes and holding small signs with pro free-speech slogans.

Thomas Mazetti, one of the Studio Total pilots, told The Local on Thursday that he was not surprised that Lukashenko had finally decided to come clean about the flight.

"I think he realized that he couldn't deny it any longer. We have had our footage assessed by numerous experts who have confirmed that the film is genuine. He was being made to look stupid," he said.

The president claimed that the plane was in fact detected but that the responsible authorities had not responded swiftly enough.

"This plane was discovered in time, but why didn't the senior officials stop the flight?," he said, reported Interfax.

"Where did the fault lie? In these bungling officials or some error in the airspace control system?"

Lukashenko furthermore underlined that the issue would be investigated and that those found responsible would be held to account.

Thomas Mazetti expressed hope that Lukashenko's u-turn would weaken his standing with the Belarusian people.

"I think he is in trouble. He has lied, been unreliable and shown himself to be incompetent," Mazetti told The Local.

In an open letter first published on The Local last week, Studio Total mocked the dictator as an "armed clown" following the arrest of several people suspected of aiding their flight.

Journalist Anton Suryapin is one of those who remain in custody after publishing images of the teddy bear stunt and Thomas Mazetti argued that Lukashenko would now have little choice but to release him.

"I think now that he has admitted that it has actually happened, he can't very well keep someone in custody for reporting the same. That would be illogical."

Human rights group Amnesty International furthermore released a statement on Wednesday calling for Suryapin's release.

"Amnesty considers Anton Suryapin to be a prisoner of conscience, charged solely for the non-violent expression of his conscientiously held beliefs and is calling for his immediate release."

Peter Vinthagen Simpson

Follow Peter on Twitter here.

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