BERLIN (Reuters) - The head of the International Ice Hockey Federation said on Wednesday a meeting with Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko had gone "a bit wrong" and should not be seen as support for the veteran leader's crackdown on protesters.
IIHF President Rene Fasel said he had met Lukashenko this week to discuss the May-June ice hockey world championship, which Belarus is due to host, following calls for it to be stripped of the event because of the crackdown.
But Fasel, who is also an International Olympic Committee member, faced sharp criticism after Lukashenko was pictured hugging him as they met in the Belarusian capital Minsk.
"It went a bit wrong, I have to say," Fasel told Swiss broadcaster SRF. "It is a bit embarrassing."
Opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya was among those who criticised Fasel.
"Fasel is shaking hands and hugging the dictator," Tsikhanouskaya wrote on Twitter. "A few miles away from them, people are imprisoned in inhumane conditions as political prisoners."
Fasel said he had tried to use his long-standing ties to Lukashenko, an avid hockey fan and player, to help find a solution to the staging of the world championships.
"I am sorry if this led to interpretations that I would accept what is happening in Belarus -- the protests, the repression. We do not accept that."
"I wanted to use this special relationship with Lukashenko to do something good. So that the world championships could be a sort of reconciliation between government and opposition."
In power since 1994, Lukashenko has faced mass protests since a presidential election last August which opponents say was rigged.
He denies electoral fraud and has remained in power with help from ally Russia while Western countries imposed sanctions.
Denying hosting rights for the ice hockey world championship would deprive Lukashenko of staging the biggest international event in Belarus since the election.
(Reporting by Karolos Grohmann, Editing by Timothy Heritage)