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

Minsk (AFP) –


Minsk said Tuesday 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 was 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 relocate the tournament from Minsk.

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

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

"This decision creates a precedent in which sports competitions designed to unite countries and peoples ... can turn into an instrument of discord and pressure to please the interests of political demagogues," the committee said.

The ex-Soviet country has been gripped by protests since strongman Alexander Lukashenko claimed 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 go ahead as planned 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 as sponsors of 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".

- 'Traitors' -

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.

The opposition believes Lukashenko rigged the August vote and that political novice Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who ran in the place of her jailed husband, was the true winner.

Tikhanovskaya, who is in exile in neighbouring EU member state Lithuania, described the IIHF decision on Monday as a "victory."

"There will be no additional wave of repression" aimed at clearing out demonstrators "before the World Championship," she said.

The decision was also received positively in the West.

Petricek tweeted: "Democracy 1, Lukashenko 0," while outgoing US State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said the United States welcomed the decision.

"We look forward to the day conditions are right for international competitions to return" to Belarus, she tweeted, calling for Lukashenko to "stop his brutal crackdown".

In Belarus, meanwhile, officials channelled their anger at the opposition.

Dmitry Baskov, chairman of the Belarus Ice Hockey Association, on Tuesday described Belarusian athletes who had called for their country to be barred from hosting international competitions until Lukashenko steps down as "traitors".

"Today you are celebrating victory while taking away a real celebration from the Belarusian people. After this you cannot be called Belarusians," Baskov said, adding: "You are traitors!"