Belarus Olympic athlete lands in Poland for refuge

·3-min read

Belarusian Olympic sprinter Krystsina Tsimanouskaya landed in Poland on Wednesday, where she is to take refuge after saying she feared for her life if forced to return home.

The 24-year-old athlete has been at the centre of a diplomatic drama in the middle of the Games since seeking the protection of Tokyo 2020 staff on Sunday, saying her team was trying to bundle her onto a plane after she publicly criticised her coaches.

In an unexpected twist on Wednesday, the athlete made a last-minute switch and decided not to board her flight to Warsaw, which has granted her a humanitarian visa, instead taking a plane to the Austrian capital.

She was welcomed at Vienna airport by government minister Magnus Brunner.

Brunner told reporters afterwards that her route from Japan had been changed for "security reasons".

Brunner said she had seemed "well, considering the circumstances".

"She is worried about her family. She is tired and naturally she is tense after what has happened over the past few days," Brunner said, adding she was "nervous about how things will progress forward now".

Tsimanouskaya then took a second flight, operated by Polish airline LOT, which landed in Warsaw at 8:11 pm (1811 GMT).

Tsimanouskaya "has safely landed in Warsaw," Polish Deputy Foreign Minister Marcin Przydacz tweeted.

After landing, she did not exit through the regular passenger arrivals terminal but she did meet with Belarusian opposition figure Pavel Latushka in the airport building.

"We hope that the agony of the regime will soon end and Kristina will be able to return to conquering new sports peaks in the New Belarus," he wrote in a tweet with a picture showing the two of them.

Before leaving Tokyo, Tsimanouskaya spent two nights sheltering in the Polish embassy there after calling for international help.

Belarus has been wracked by political upheaval and a crackdown on dissent after disputed elections that returned strongman Alexander Lukashenko to power last year.

Tsimanouskaya was one of more than 2,000 Belarusian sports figures who signed an open letter calling for new elections and for political prisoners to be freed.

But her trouble in Tokyo came after she posted on her Instagram, criticising her coaches for entering her into a race without informing her first.

Her husband Arseny Zdanevich has fled to Ukraine and on Wednesday the Polish government said he had also been given a humanitarian visa.

The pair are expected to meet up in Poland, a staunch critic of Lukashenko's regime and home to a growing number of dissidents.

"I have successfully received a visa and am very grateful to the Polish ambassador for helping me so quickly," Zdanevich told AFP.

- Dissident found hanged -

The International Olympic Committee has said it will investigate Belarus's Olympic team, as activists call for the country's Olympic committee to be suspended and its athletes to compete as neutrals.

Lukashenko and his son Viktor have been banned from Olympic events over the targeting of athletes for their political views.

Shortly before the Tokyo Games, Lukashenko warned sports officials and athletes that he expected results in Japan.

"Think about it before going," he said. "If you come back with nothing, it's better for you not to come back at all."

The alleged attempt to return Tsimanouskaya to Belarus has prompted condemnation, with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken accusing Minsk of "another act of transnational repression".

In power since 1994, Lukashenko sparked international outrage in May by dispatching a fighter jet to intercept a Ryanair plane flying from Greece to Lithuania to arrest a dissident on board.

The Olympic saga came as police in Ukraine said missing Belarusian activist Vitaly Shishov, whose NGO helps his compatriots flee the country, had been found hanged in a park in Kiev.

Police said they had opened a murder probe and would pursue all leads including "murder disguised as suicide", while activists accused authorities of "an operation... to liquidate a Belarusian who presented a true danger to the regime".


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