Residents of a small town outside the Belarusian capital and the Swedish man who says he flew the plane in question have confirmed reports of a bizarre stunt to promote free speech by illegally entering Belarusian airspace and dropping teddy bears from an airplane.
Belarusian authorities deny any such incursion happened. Officials in neighboring Lithuania have acknowledged a violation of their airspace on July 4 and are investigating whether an aircraft used their territory en route to such an airdrop.
But Swede Tomas Mazetti, who claims to have piloted the single-engine plane, described his actions to RFE/RL in detail, saying the whole risky "Teddybear Airdrop Minsk 2012" venture was intended to draw attention to longstanding obstacles to free speech in Belarus.
"The situation has been the same in almost 20 years and it has become worse lately," Mazetti told RFE/RL Brussels correspondent Rikard Jozwiak. "At least I hope that in some way that we can show them there is a whole world out there that actually cares about this."
Mazetti and organizers stressed their awareness of the risks but cited their commitment to their work with "the free Belarusian movement for free speech [including] Charter 77 and the Tell The Truth movement."
WATCH: A video that chronicles the whole culmination of the "Teddybear Airdrop Minsk 2012" operation:
Teddy Bears With 'Foreign' Messages
A number of locals confirmed to RFE/RL's Belarus Service that they saw an airplane early on July 4 disgorging large numbers of dark-colored bags over their town of Ivyanets, about 50 kilometers from Minsk and 80 kilometers from the Lithuanian border.
Two of the eyewitnesses said the packages had "foreign" messages and contained teddy bears with parachutes attached to them.
Resident Vintses Soltan said he saw a plane dispersing some sort of packages but thought little of it because of all the aerial activity the previous day, July 3, Republic Day in Belarus.
Ivyanets resident Valery Mazura also said he saw the packages falling from a plane and added that they were picked up by a municipal cleaning crew.
A worker for a municipal cleaning crew in Ivyanets, Svyatlana Turko, confirmed that the bags were picked up and said she saw a collection of them at the local police station.
The director of local community services in Ivyanets, Uladzimir Rudy, told RFE/RL he couldn't say for sure whether his subordinates found any stuffed animals, adding that there was a lot to clean up after the Republic Day festivities.
"But in general, bears live in the forest," Rudy said.
Flying On Faith
Mazetti's advertising agency, Studio Total, issued a press release on July 4 touting the operation, saying the "small single-engine airplane illegally entered Belarussian [sic] airspace" intending to fly to Minsk.
It was said to have taken off from an airport in Pocenai, southeast of Kaunas, in Lithuania.
The press release says "the airplane was loaded with 1,000 teddy bears holding signs demanding the right to free speech in English and Belarusian."
The attached messages read, "It's impossible to silence us" in Belarusian as well as the foreign text.
Studio Total has a history of hoaxes and high-profile stunts, including an announcement of a "sex university" in an effort that successfully duped a number of reporters.
But in addition to the witness statements from Ivyanets, a number of videos posted to the web appear to corroborate Mazetti's story (here
from the cockpit and here
from the ground).
WATCH: A video titled "Teddybear Airdrop Minsk" uploaded by Mazetti and colleagues shows the operation from the cockpit. People familiar with the region say it appears to be the area around Ivyanets:
RFE/RL's Belarus Service quoted a Defense Ministry spokesman on July 5 insisting that the videos purporting to chronicle the airdrop and posted on the Internet are bogus.
"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," ministry spokesman Uladzimir Makarau said.
WATCH: Another YouTube video with the same title from the ground shows small packages dropping from a plane over residential areas:
Lithuanian authorities said they were investigating whether such an incident could have taken place, in violation of air-traffic regulations.
'Not On Their Toes'
In addition to its own air defenses, Belarus hosts two Russian bases and provides a bulwark for neighboring Russia's air defenses.
"The Republic Day [July 3] the day before was actually part of the reason we chose that [next] day," Mazeti said. "We knew that all the air defenses were out parading and doing flyovers and all the officers and high commanders were gathering in the evening for a huge dinner involving quite a lot of vodka, so we were calculating that they would not be on their absolute toes in the morning after."
Mazetti said his plane "flew very low over some border stations and we actually saw Belarusian soldiers -- I think that they didn't know that we had footage of the whole thing so they hoped they can just deny it."
The Studio Total press release refers to Belarus as "Europe's last dictatorship" -- "a land where journalists and the opposition in general are still threatened, jailed, or even tortured on a regular basis" -- and invites readers to visit Charter97's website.
Mazetti invoked the example of German Mathias Rust's famous stunt for peace
in 1987, when as a 19-year-old he flew his Cessna from Helsinki to Red Square in Moscow through the phalanx of Soviet air defenses.
That breach resulted in a purge by then-leader Mikhail Gorbachev of the Soviet defense ranks.
Mazetti said his calculus in executing the stunt took the possibility of such a reaction from strongman Belarus President Alyaksandr Lukashenka into account.
"I think that when this gets out enough and Belarusian authorities cannot deny it, then there will be changes in the Belarusian government," Mazetti told RFE/RL. "It is a fact that after a German pilot flew into Soviet airspace and landed on the Red Square, half of the Soviet anti-air defense got fired, and in some sense that actually was part of the democracy movement at that time. People realized that this entire, huge army complex could be defeated in that ridiculous way."
In a tragic incident in 1995
, Belarusian jets shot down a hot-air balloon that strayed over the border from Poland during an annual race, igniting the balloon and killing the two American crewmen.
Written by Andy Heil based on reporting by RFE/RL's Belarus Service and RFE/RL correspondent Rikard Jozwiak in Brussels