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Latvia removes ice hockey body's banner in row over Belarus flag swap

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A historical white-red-white flag of Belarus flies next to national flags of nations participating in IIHF World Ice Hockey Championships in Riga, Latvia May 24, 2021. REUTERS/Janis Laizans/File Photo

May 25 (Reuters) - Latvia showed its support for the Belarusian opposition on Tuesday by opting to stop flying the flag of ice hockey's governing body at the world championshp in Riga, rather than remove a flag used by opponents of Belarus's veteran leader.

"We have to pick sides - a people striving for freedom or a dictator," Riga Mayor Martins Stakis wrote on Twitter.

Belarus forced a jetliner heading from Greece to Lithuania to land in Minsk on Sunday and arrested a dissident journalist who was on board. read more

Latvian authorities condemned the action, which Belarusian state media said was ordered by President Alexander Lukashenko, and on Monday removed the Belarus state flag from a display of flags in Riga representing nations in the world championship.

It was replaced with a historical Belarusian red and white flag, which is now the symbol of the opposition. read more

The International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) denounced the move as a "political message" and urged the Riga mayor's office to reconsider its decision to remove the Belarusian flag.

It asked Latvia to remove the IIHF flag and the world championship flag bearing sports' governing body's name from the same display, and Belarus expelled all Latvian diplomats and demanded an apology.

"We will proceed with removing IIHF flags," Stakis wrote.

Minsk had been scheduled to co-host the tournament with Riga but was stripped of the right to do so following unrest after a presidential election the opposition said was rigged and because of concerns over the COVID-19 pandemic.

Reporting by Shrivathsa Sridhar in Bengaluru, Editing by Timothy Heritage

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