STOCKHOLM (AP) - Belarus on Wednesday ordered Sweden to close its embassy in Minsk by the end of the month, a move that comes only days after Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko's regime effectively expelled the Swedish ambassador.
The dispute is the latest in a series of diplomatic spats between Belarus and Western nations, especially European Union states that have taken steps against the ex-Soviet country and its longtime leader, Lukashenko, over the stifling of human rights.
EU spokesman Sebastien Brabant reiterated the 27-member bloc's "grave concern" about the earlier decision to bar Sweden's Ambassador Stefan Eriksson and said it was "urgently seeking clarification" over Minsk's latest move.
Sweden said Belarus had expelled Eriksson earlier this month because he had met with the country's opposition and because Sweden had provided a university in Belarus with books containing material about human rights issues. Belarus said it merely chose not to extend the envoy's accreditation, but added that his activities were aimed at the "destruction" of Belarusian-Swedish relations.
Sweden responded by barring entry for the incoming Belarusian ambassador to Stockholm and asking two Belarusian diplomats to leave the Nordic country.
Sweden's Foreign Minister Carl Bildt tweeted that Lukashenko's "fear of human rights (is) reaching new heights," by deciding to also kick out other Swedish representatives.
"Lukashenko has now chosen to step up the conflict with Sweden even further," he wrote on his blog. "The purpose is most likely to make it as difficult as possible for the various cooperation programs we have (there) concerning _ not the least _ civil rights and freedom."
The Belarusian Foreign Ministry said it viewed its measures as a "principle of reciprocity" since it had had no other choice but to close its embassy in Stockholm after its senior staff there were asked to leave. "Such circumstances make it impossible for the mission to maintain its normal functions," the statement said.
Lukashenko has ruled Belarus, a nation of 10 million, since 1994, repressing opposition groups and independent news media while preserving a quasi-Soviet economy with about 80 percent of industry in state hands. He has earned the nickname in the West of "Europe's last dictator."
The diplomatic dust-up also comes weeks after a pair of Swedish activists were reported to have used a light plane to drop hundreds of teddy bears bearing messages supportive of human rights into Belarusian territory. Lukashenko fired two generals over the incident. Bildt, however, has said that there was no word that the teddy bears were linked to the expulsion.
(Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)
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