Belarus’ Lukashenko leads hockey mourners
Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko pulled on a hockey uniform Thursday as he led thousands of mourning fans at a sombre ceremony remembering the players lost in Russia's worst sporting disaster.
More than 10,000 Minsk hockey fans filed into the capital’s stadium clutching tickets to what should have been the season’s opening match between local Dinamo and Lokomotiv from the central Russian city of Yaroslavl.
Lokomotiv’s charter jet crashed on takeoff on Wednesday in an accident that killed 43 people and left the one surviving player fighting for his life with burns over 90 percent of his body.
“The most frightening thing of all is that they were flying here, to us — to this wonderful arena, flying as our best friends,” the hockey-mad Lukashenko said in a speech he delivered on ice skates from inside the rink.
“These are our blood brothers,” Lukashenko said before making a motion as if to wipe away a tear.
Lukashenko — once dubbed Europe’s last dictator by the United States — has attempted to repair his relations with Russia in recent times of economic crisis and often uses grand occasions to make political statements.
But the deep emotions running through the Minsk stadium left many fans openly weeping as Mozart’s Requiem played and life-size posters of the players stood on the ice.
Many of those who attended the ceremony had earlier left candles at the entrance to the arena while others said prayers while clutching a candle.
“It is very difficult. We wanted to be at the match, but everything turned out differently,” one elderly man tearfully told Belarus state television.
Russian hockey officials meanwhile announced plans to put together a new Lokomotiv team within days by assigning players from other top sides in the league.
“Everyone knows that this is the most important sport” in Yaroslavl, said Russian hockey boss Vyacheslav Fetisov.
“Lokomotiv simply must play again to commemorate the dead.”
Yaroslav’s team has won the expanded Russian championship — now called the Continental Hockey league (KHL) and including countries such as Belarus — on three occasions and enjoys a broad fan following.
The team’s arena had turned into shrine a day after the accident as thousands stacked up roses and team scarves in mourning.
“In Yaroslavl, a man has two things. A man has his children, and he has Lokomotiv,” said a man outside the arena, a team scarf wrapped around his neck.
The crash was the worst sports disaster among the former Soviet republics since an August 1979 mid-air collision claimed the lives of 17 football players from the Tashkent side Pakhtakor.
That team was also flying to Minsk.