The president of the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF), Rene Fasel, has defended his meeting with Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, saying his organization "came in with specific requirements that the government should fulfill in order that [this year's] World Championship can take place in Minsk."
The IIHF is coming under mounting pressure to strip Belarus of its half of the tournament, which it is due to share with Latvia in May and June, amid a violent crackdown on opposition protesters.
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas tweeted on Thursday that "anyone who is serious about solidarity with Belarus cannot seriously want to hold an Ice Hockey World Championship in this situation. It would be the greatest PR gift for Lukashenko and a devastating signal to the demonstators. I hope the organizers realize that."
Fasel was seen warmly embracing Lukashenko before their talks on Monday. Giving an interview to the in-house IIHF website, Fasel said that he "regretted" the negative reaction caused by the pictures and video of the meeting.
"If we made the impression that it was just a friendly meeting, this is not accurate and was not our intention," he said. "This meeting was taken in a serious tone and with the IIHF bringing specific and difficult questions to the table."
"If we move forward with Minsk as a tournament host, we also must establish a system where we can be assured that the Belarus government is taking concrete actions towards fulfilling the pledges made to the IIHF, otherwise it will not be possible to hold a World Championship in Minsk," he added.
Despite the backlash to the meeting with Lukashenko, Fasel signalled his intention that Belarus should remain as a co-host, saying that he hoped sport could be used as "a means to bring people together."
However, he revealed that Denmark had put itself forward as a possible replacement if needed, and that discussions were also being held with Slovakia.