Latvia and hockey body spar over Belarus opposition flag

·2 min read
Workers take down International Ice Hockey Federation World Ice Hockey Championship flags in Riga after the IIHF complained about the removal of the official Belarus flag at the competition

Ice hockey's global governing body on Tuesday protested against Latvia's decision to put up the Belarusian opposition's flag at this year's world championship in Riga, stressing that it was an apolitical sports organisation.

Latvian officials had swapped out the Belarus national flag for the white-red-white flag of the opposition in a show of solidarity with journalist Roman Protasevich, who was arrested Sunday after Belarus forced the Ryanair flight he was on to land in Minsk.

The flag replacement Monday led Belarus to expel the entire staff of Latvia's embassy, including the ambassador. Latvia then responded with the reciprocal expulsion of Belarusian diplomats.

Riga was named the sole host of the 2021 ice hockey world championship, which started on May 21, after Belarus was excluded from its role as co-host over "security concerns".

The International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) "does not agree with the actions taken yesterday by the mayor of Riga and the Latvian foreign minister to use the flag of a participating country in the 2021 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship for a political message," the Swiss-based governing body said in a statement.

"The actions of the Belarus government are separate from the players who are competing under the Belarus flag at this tournament. The players have been welcomed to Latvia as guests and should not have to see their flag removed without their consent from the public display of the 16 participating countries," it added.

The IIHF said it has asked the mayor of Riga to take down the governing body's flag from the same area so that the organisation "is removed from any association with the political statements".

It added that it hoped the mayor's office would reconsider its decision, but Riga mayor Martins Stakis said he would not take down the opposition flag.

"I have made my choice, and we will proceed with removing the IIHF flags from the public space in Riga," Stakis said on his Facebook page on Tuesday.

"We cannot forget that just a few hundred kilometres away an EU aircraft is hijacked and people are being tortured and killed," he added.

"The regime committing these crimes is behaving like a bandit on the national and now also on an international level."

Belarus's long-serving President Alexander Lukashenko and his allies are already under European Union and US sanctions for his crackdown on protests that erupted after a presidential vote last August.

During months of demonstrations that have since faded, opponents demanded the resignation of the 66-year-old president, saying the election was rigged.

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