Poland-bound Belarus athlete arrives at Japanese airport

Tokyo (AFP) –


Belarusian Olympic athlete Krystsina Tsimanouskaya arrived at a Japanese airport on Wednesday where she is expected to board a plane to Poland, after Warsaw offered the sprinter a humanitarian visa.

The 24-year-old, who was seen leaving a car and entering Narita airport, has said her team tried to force her to return home after she criticised her coaches.

The sprinter declined to speak to the media as she entered the airport.

Tsimanouskaya has said she fears for her life if she returns to Belarus, where there has been political upheaval and a crackdown on dissent after disputed elections that returned strongman Alexander Lukashenko to power last year.

She was one of more than 2,000 Belarusian sports figures who signed an open letter calling for new elections and for political prisoners to be freed.

Her husband has now fled to Ukraine and the pair are expected to meet up in Poland, which is a staunch critic of Lukashenko's regime and has become home to a growing number of dissidents.

Tsimanouskaya arrived in Poland's embassy on Monday evening following a night spent in an airport hotel after she sought help to avoid what she said was an attempt by her team to forcibly return her home.

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said Tuesday he had spoken to the "courageous" Tsimanouskaya, who is "currently well taken care of and safe".

"I assured her that she can count on the support and solidarity of Poland. In the coming days, she will fly to Warsaw, where she will be able to thrive without obstacles and, if she so chooses, will receive further assistance," he wrote on Facebook.

The International Olympic Committee has said it will investigate Belarus's Olympic team over the incident, but activists have called for the country's Olympic committee to be suspended and its athletes to compete as neutrals.

And US Secretary of State Antony Blinken accused Belarus of "another act of transnational repression" over the alleged attempt to force Tsimanouskaya home.

Lukashenko, who has been in power since 1994, sparked international outrage in May by dispatching a fighter jet to intercept a Ryanair plane flying from Greece to Lithuania in order to arrest a dissident onboard.

Polish Deputy Foreign Minister Pawel Jablonski seemed to reference that incident when he declined to confirm whether Tsimanouskaya would fly out on Wednesday as had been rumoured, citing safety.

The Olympic saga came as police in Ukraine said a missing Belarusian activist, whose NGO helps his compatriots flee the country, had been found hanged in a park in Kiev.

Police said they had opened a murder probe and would pursue all leads including "murder disguised as suicide".