Azerbaijan says it has withdrawn its athletes from the European Weightlifting Championships hosted in the capital of rival Armenia after a flag-burning incident during the opening ceremony.
Azerbaijan said it had become impossible for its athletes to take part in the championships and they had already left Armenia to travel home via Georgia.
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Video of the incident on Saturday showed a man snatching the flag and setting it alight, prompting an angry joint statement by Azerbaijan’s youth and sports ministry and its National Olympic Committee.
They condemned it as a “barbaric act” and as evidence of ethnic hatred and racism, saying Armenia was unfit to ensure the safety of athletes and host international sporting events.
“In conditions when such an atmosphere of hatred prevails in Armenia, security is not ensured, the normal participation of Azerbaijani athletes in competitions is impossible due to the psychological pressure,” the statement said.
“Politicising sport is absolutely unacceptable,” it added, urging the European Weightlifting Federation to impose sanctions on Armenia.
— The Azeri Times (@AzeriTimes) April 15, 2023
Armenia rejected that criticism, saying the incident had been resolved quickly and without any danger to competitors at the championships.
“The incident that occurred during the opening ceremony, which was resolved very quickly, has nothing to do with guarantees of safety of the athletes,” it said.
Russia’s RIA Novosti news agency said Armenian police briefly detained the man responsible and quoted his lawyers as saying he was released without charge.
The two countries have had hostile relations since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, of which they were both part.
Since that time, they have fought two major wars over Nagorno-Karabakh, a mountain enclave that is internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan but is populated mainly by ethnic Armenians. Seven soldiers were killed in fighting within the past week.