The Belarusian flag has been publicly removed from a display representing the nations at the Ice Hockey World Championships in Latvia, in protest at the alleged ‘state-sponsored hijacking’ of a plane by the authorities in Minsk.
Mayor of Riga Martins Stakis and Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics were pictured replacing the Belarusian flag with one representing the country’s opposition movement, at a display dedicated to the 16 teams currently in action at the IIHF World Championships being hosted in the city.
“Among the flags of the hockey championship, we raise the flag of free Belarus!” wrote Riga mayor Stakis in a message on Twitter, showing him proudly hoisting the red and white colors associated with opposition protests in Belarus.
“This flag was entrusted to me by political refugees from Belarus. A flag symbolizing a regime engaged in state terrorism does not belong in Riga – so we took it down!”
Foreign Minister Rinkevics added a similar message on his Twitter page, along with the message “Free Pratasevich” – referring to opposition journalist Roman Protasevich, whose fate has triggered an international scandal.
Protasevich, 26, was detained in Minsk on Sunday after the Ryanair flight he was traveling on from Greece to Vilnius in Lithuania was diverted while in Belarusian airspace following a reported bomb threat.
Protasevic is the former editor-in-chief of Belarusian opposition Telegram channel Nexta and is currently an employee of Belamova, an outlet founded by Igor Losik, a consultant for US state-run media RFE/RL.
Both are on Belarus’ list of extremist organizations.
Belarus stands accused of manufacturing the bomb scare to provide an opportunity to detain Protasevich, although it has rejected those claims as “unfounded accusations.”
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The scandal piles further international pressure on longtime President Alexander Lukashenko, who stands accused by the West and opposition within his own country of rigging last year’s elections which saw him retain the leadership.
Belarus was originally due to co-host this year’s IIHF World Championships, only to be stripped of those rights in January amid threats from sponsors that they would pull out.
In announcing its decision that the tournament would solely be held in Latvia, the IIHF cited “safety and security issues” as being behind the step.
Elsewhere, President Lukashenko, 66, has already been banned by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) from attending this year’s Games in Tokyo.
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