IIHF President René Fasel described Latvia's calls to strip Belarus of co-hosting rights as "understandable" ©Getty Images

International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) President René Fasel has cast doubts over the staging of the 2021 Men's World Championship after describing Latvia's calls to rid Belarus of its co-hosting rights as "understandable".

Minsk in Belarus and Riga in Latvia are scheduled to stage the event from May 21 to June 6 next year, but Fasel admitted "outside political pressures" have put "serious risk" on it being hosted by the two countries.

His concerns come after the Latvian Government sent a letter to the IIHF, urging the governing body to replace Belarus and warning it would "withdraw guarantees" for organising the Championship should it fail to act.

Last month, the IIHF released a statement reiterating its determination to co-host the event as planned.

But following the federation's recent Council meeting, Fasel said it needed to review the status of the competition "carefully" and admitted it would take "some time" to complete.

It comes following weeks of anti-Government protests in Belarus against President Alexander Lukashenko. 

"[It is a] very challenging situation," Fasel said.

"We are facing outside political pressures that have placed serious risk in the 2021 World Championship to be co-hosted by Minsk and Riga.

"The Latvian Prime Minister has indicated that the country is still willing to co-host the 2021 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship, however that it may be unwilling to do so with Minsk as a co-host under the current circumstances, and is calling on the IIHF to consider assigning the status of main host for the 2021 World Championship tournament to another country.

"These political moves by the Latvian Government are understandable of course. 

"It has been distressing to see what has been happening in Belarus, a country where the IIHF and the participating teams had such a great experience playing the 2014 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship.

Protests are continuing in Belarus following the re-election of Alexander Lukashenko as the country's President ©Getty Images
Protests are continuing in Belarus following the re-election of Alexander Lukashenko as the country's President ©Getty Images

"Right now, if the Worlds were to be held this month, there is no way we could do it."

Protests have been on-going in Belarus since August 9 when Lukashenko was controversially re-elected as the country's President.

Latvia is among the countries to have sanctioned 30 officials in Belarus, including Lukashenko, for their "central role in falsifying election results in Belarus and using violence against peaceful protesters".

Fasel added: "I hate to see ice hockey coming into a political discussion, regardless of the Latvian Government's position, the host Organising Committee for Riga and Minsk worked hard together to win a successful bid under the slogan 'Passion, no Borders'.

"Since then they have done a great job working together to prepare for 2021.  

"But health and safety is a priority, I cannot say it enough. 

"Given the political situation and also the COVID-19 risk, we must review the 2021 World Championship status carefully.

"This will take some time."

Fasel said an expert group had been created to conduct the review, with the findings expected to be presented to the IIHF Council when it next meets in November.

"Even without these issues coming from the Latvian Government there have been ongoing concerns regarding the ability of the Minsk venue to guarantee the health and safety of players, fans, and officials," Fasel added.

"As with all IIHF decisions we will take as much time as we need, and choose the solution that is best for the IIHF, its members, and the game of hockey."

Last week Belarusian Ice Hockey Association President Dmitri Baskov accused Latvia of "trying to politicise sport" and claimed there was no reason to strip Belarus of its co-hosting rights. 

Belarus is due to stage matches at Minsk Arena, alongside Latvia, which plans to use Arena Riga.

Both the semi-finals and the medal matches are set to be held in Minsk.