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Finns Jokerit to open KHL campaign in Belarus despite political unrest

STOCKHOLM/HELSINKI (Reuters) - Finnish club Jokerit will travel to Dynamo Minsk on Thursday to open their Kontinental Hockey League campaign, it said, despite continued protests in Belarus over the results of August’s presidential election and criticism of the decision at home.

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President Alexander Lukashenko is facing the biggest challenge of his 26-year rule after claiming victory in the election, which opponents say was rigged. He denies electoral fraud and shows no sign of backing down.

The European Union and United States have rejected the election result and are considering sanctions.

    "We have made the decision to go to Minsk ... only on game day, and to leave immediately after the match," Jokerit chairman Jari Kurri said in a statement on the club's website. (www.jokerit.com)

“We have been in close contact with Dynamo about the possibility of playing the match and we will adhere to the series program,” he said, adding that he hoped Belarus would find “peaceful solutions to its political situation”.

However, Finland’s sports minister, Annika Saarikko, urged Jokerit to reconsider its decision. The Finnish ice hockey players’ association and the team’s official fanclub also issued statements opposing the trip.

RUSSIAN LINK

Kurri owns a 60% stake in Jokerit, while a local subsidiary of Russian mining giant Norilsk Nickel bought a 40% stake last year, after the club ran into trouble because of U.S. sanctions against its previous Russian owners.

The mining company’s biggest shareholder - businessman Vladimir Potanin - sometimes plays in Russia’s Night Hockey League games with President Vladimir Putin and other officials.

Lukashenko, whom Putin has invited to Moscow for talks on tackling Belarus’s political crisis, is himself an avid ice hockey player and is often shown playing on state television.

He continued to play in public this year, defying calls to impose a national lockdown to halt the spread of coronavirus.

But discontent with Lukashenko has grown among Belarusian athletes. Hundreds of them, including Olympics medallists, published last week a demand for new elections.

Hockey player Ilya Litvinov, who plays for Minsk feeder club Dynamo Molodechno, has posted pictures of his bruised face on social media and said he was beaten by police on his way home from training in Molodechno, near Minsk.

    Litvinov told Belorussian sports website Pressball (www.pressball.by) he was fine now and would not press charges. 

The KHL comprises 23 teams - 18 from Russia and one each from Belarus, Kazakhstan, China, Latvia and Finland. Dynamo Minsk has been in the league since it began in 2008, and Jokerit joined in 2014.

Reporting by Philip O’Connor in Stockholm and Anne Kauranen in Helsinki, additional reporting by Gabrielle Tetrault-Farber and Polina Devitt in Moscow; editing by Gareth Jones

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