LONDON – Leaders of the Paralympics expressed hopes Saturday for a peaceful outcome in Ukraine after Russia executed a de facto military takeover of the Crimea region as athletes arrived in nearby Sochi for next week’s start of the Winter Paralympics.
Russia’s intervention in Ukraine has escalated in the days since the end of the Sochi Olympics, with global concern over the country’s troop movements replacing the widespread praise for its staging of the Winter Games.
The Paralympic flame was lit Saturday at a ceremony in St. Petersburg, the birthplace of Russian President Vladimir Putin, ahead of the flame’s 10-day trip that ends in Sochi on Friday for the opening ceremony of the games in the coastal Russian resort. Later Saturday, Russia’s parliament gave Putin permission to deploy the military to protect Russian interests in the Crimean peninsula, west of Sochi on the Black Sea.
Russia’s actions could violate the Olympic Truce, a U.N. resolution that asks warring parties to cease hostilities during Olympic events. The Paralympics end March 16.
“As with situations around the world, we hope a peaceful resolution can be found in the spirit of the Olympic Truce, which has covered the Paralympic Games since 2006,” the International Paralympic Committee said in a statement to The Associated Press.
“We want the story here to be the great festival of sport that has already taken place in Sochi and will continue now that athletes are arriving for the start of the Winter Paralympics.”
U.N. members, including Russia, have not always honoured the Olympic Truce. During the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing in August 2008, Georgia and Russia fought over the Moscow-backed Georgian province of South Ossetia.
Sochi is just 475 kilometres (295 miles) southeast of the Crimean regional capital, Simferopol, but team officials expressed no security concerns.
U.S. team spokesman Patrick Sandusky said he sees no threat to the Paralympics. “Nothing has changed in our planning,” he said.
British Paralympic Association chief executive Tim Hollingsworth said his organization was monitoring events in Ukraine and took regular security advice from the UK’s Foreign Office.