By Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber
MOSCOW (Reuters) - Belarus has been stripped of the right to co-host this year's ice hockey world championship due to safety concerns over political unrest and the COVID-19 pandemic there, the sport's governing body said on Monday, in a blow to President Alexander Lukashenko.
The move deprives Lukashenko, an avid hockey fan, of a stage to host the biggest international event planned in the country since he claimed victory last August in a vote the opposition said was rigged and marred with violations.
Members of the Belarusian opposition had been calling for the country to be stripped of tournament due to a crackdown on protesters in the wake of the disputed election.
Volkswagen's Skoda Auto and Liqui Moly, sponsors of the tournament, had threatened in the last few days to pull out if the event was to be held in Minsk.
The International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) said it had consulted with experts and stakeholders about how the tournament could be held in the Belarusian capital in light of political unrest and lax prevention measures against COVID-19.
The IIHF Council found that "it is currently impossible to ensure the welfare of teams, spectators and officials while holding a World Championship in Belarus."
Lukashenko had sought to reassure the IIHF last week that Belarus could safely host the tournament.
Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya welcomed the decision, saying it was the result of lobbying by Lukashenko's opponents.
"This is a victory for every Belarusian who knows that hockey is a game and Belarusians are not planning to play with criminals," she wrote on social media. "This is our common victory."
Swimmer Aliaksandra Herasimenia, a three-time Olympic medallist who heads the Belarusian Sport Solidarity Foundation (BSSF), said in a statement: "The IIHF decision has restored the Belarusian community's faith in justice. Sporting events cannot be held in countries where violence and torture are used against civilians."
The IIHF said it would consider the status of Latvia as a co-host given its joint bid with Belarus, adding that it would consider the possibility of holding the tournament at a single venue to facilitate travel and the implementation of health measures.
Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics said his country would honour its commitment and evaluate how it could host the entire event, which runs from May 21 to June 6.
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) last month banned Lukashenko from attending the Olympic Games as head of his country's National Olympic Committee (NOC), saying the Belarusian authorities had not adequately safeguarded athletes from political discrimination.
Several prominent Belarusian athletes, including Olympic basketball player Yelena Leuchanka and decathlete Andrei Krauchanka, were jailed for taking part in protests. Others lost their state employment or were kicked off national teams for supporting the opposition.
(Reporting by Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber; Additional reporting by Vladimir Soldatkin in Moscow and Matthias Williams in Kyiv; Editing by Hugh Lawson)