MOSCOW (Reuters) - Ice hockey's international governing body has said it needs more time to make a decision over whether to stage the 2021 Ice Hockey World Championship in Belarus, a move supported by the country's opposition leader.
President Alexander Lukashenko is facing the biggest challenge of his 26-year rule after claiming victory in an Aug. 9 election his opponents say was rigged, leading to more than three months of nationwide protests and reports of police brutality. Lukashenko denies the election was rigged.
Neighbouring Latvia, with whom Belarus is due to host the 2021 ice hockey tournament, has been a vocal critic of Lukashenko's regime since the election, imposing sanctions on him and other Belarusian officials, along with the other Baltic states, Lithuania and Estonia.
"There are issues occurring within Belarus that we need to take seriously, because there is a significant risk that the current challenges in Minsk, the government position of the Latvian co-host, and the COVID-19 pandemic will have a significant impact on the 2021 World Championship in Minsk and Riga," International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) President Rene Fasel said in a statement on Wednesday.
His comments came after the IIHF Council reviewed an external report at a meeting in Zurich concerning the status of the tournament, which is scheduled to run from May 21 to June 6 next year.
Belarus' opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who is in exile in Lithuania, welcomed the delay and urged the IIHF to be firm on the matter.
"@IIHFHockey announced that they need more time to review the situation with playing the 2021 IHWC in Belarus," she wrote on Twitter on Thursday. "Thank you for hearing us."
Lukashenko is a keen ice hockey fan, a passion he shares with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin. The two have played together on various occasions.
Minsk hosted the tournament in 2014.
(Reporting by Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber; Writing by Alexander Marrow; Editing by Ken Ferris)