Ice hockey federation criticises Latvian officials over Belarus flag swap

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(Reuters) - The International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) criticised Latvian officials on Tuesday for removing the Belarusian flag from a display at the world championship in Riga and replacing it with a flag used by the opposition.

Denouncing the move as a "political message", the IIHF said the Belarusian government's actions and the nation's ice hockey players should be considered "separate".

It asked Latvia to remove the IIHF flag and the world championship flag bearing sports' governing body's name from the same display.

Belarus scrambled a warplane to force a passenger plane to land in the capital Minsk and arrested a dissident journalist who was on board on Sunday, drawing criticism from the European Union and the United States.

A day after the incident, Riga's mayor and Latvia's foreign minister had the Belarusian flag removed from a display of flags representing the nations competing in the world championship. It was replaced with a historical Belarusian red and white flag, which is now the symbol of the opposition.

"The IIHF does not agree with the actions taken by the Mayor of Riga and the Latvian Foreign Minister to use the flag of a participating country in the world championship for a political message," the IIHF said in a statement

"The actions of the Belarus government are separate from the players 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."

"The IIHF will retain the Belarus flag in all world championship venues for the duration of the tournament, and hopes the mayor's office will reconsider its decision," it said.

Earlier this year, Belarus was stripped of the right to co-host the world championship amid safety concerns over political unrest and the COVID-19 pandemic, with sponsors threatening to pull out if it was held in Minsk.

(Reporting by Shrivathsa Sridhar in Bengaluru, Editing by Timothy Heritage)