Minsk regrets 'groundless' decision to strip Belarus of ice hockey worlds

Minsk (AFP) –

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Minsk on Tuesday said it regretted a "groundless" decision to strip Belarus of its role as co-host of the 2021 ice hockey world championships over a crackdown on opposition protesters.

Belarus had been due to co-host the event with Latvia in May and June, but calls had mounted in recent weeks by the Belarusian opposition and EU member states to move the tournament from Minsk.

The International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) announced Monday that it would remove Belarus from its role as co-host due to "safety and security issues that are beyond the IIHF's control" including political unrest and Covid-19.

On Tuesday the Organising Committee for the tournament in Minsk said in a statement on the Belarus government website that it "regrets the groundless decision".

The committee added that removing Belarus as co-host set a precedent for using sport competitions as an instrument "to please the interests of political demagogues".

The ex-Soviet country has been gripped by protests since strongman President Alexander Lukashenko won re-election last August extending his 26-year rule in a vote the opposition says was rigged.

In the wake of a crackdown on demonstrators, the European Union imposed sanctions on Lukashenko and his allies.

Late last month IIHF president Rene Fasel had said he would do "everything possible" to ensure the tournament would be held in Belarus.

But after his meeting with Lukashenko in Minsk earlier this month, Czech carmaker Skoda and German motor oil manufacturer Liqui Moly threatened to pull out of sponsoring the event.

In December, Tomas Petricek, foreign minister of six-times world champions the Czech Republic, said if the tournament took place in Belarus it would "legitimise a repressive regime".

In its statement Tuesday the Belarus organising committee said it believes that, despite the decision to strip it of the tournament, "the international sports community will be able to get out from under the influence of political and financial forces."

It added that "the hockey family will become even stronger and will not look back at the political ambitions of people who have nothing to do with sport."

A hockey fan, Lukashenko routinely plays in exhibition matches that sometimes feature Russian leader Vladimir Putin, who has backed the Belarusian strongman in the face of protests.