Baku (Reuters) – Azerbaijan lodged a strong protest on Saturday after its national flag was grabbed and set on fire during the opening ceremony of a weightlifting championship in neighbouring Armenia.
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.
Video of the incident 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.
Armenia rejected that criticism, saying the incident had been resolved quickly and without any danger to competitors at the European Weightlifting Championships.
The two countries have had hostile relations since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, of which they were both part. In 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.
Russia’s RIA Novosti news agency quoted a lawyer for the man allegedly involved in the flag incident as saying he had been released without charge.