U.S. targets multiple Belarusians' visas over athlete repression

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The United States on Thursday said it was imposing visa restrictions on several Belarusians, citing the repression of athletes abroad including the attempted forced repatriation of a sprinter at the Tokyo Olympic Games.

Krystsina Tsimanouskaya refused to board a flight back home last year when she was removed from the games against her will after publicly complaining about national team coaches.

She defected to Poland, saying she feared for her safety if she returned to Belarus. President Alexander Lukashenko has said she was "manipulated."

"We stand in solidarity with Ms. Tsimanouskaya and all others who have experienced the regime's attempts to silence criticism," Secretary of State Antony Blinken said.

Thursday's move relates to "involvement in serious, extraterritorial counter-dissident activity" but the State Department statement did not detail who was being targetted with the new visa limits.

Tensions are high between Russia and the United States over a possible invasion of Ukraine, as NATO says there has been a significant movement of Russian military forces into neighboring Belarus in recent days.

Last May a Ryanair plane was also forced to land last May in the Belarusian capital Minsk when controllers cited a bomb threat.

Once it was on the ground, a Belarusian dissident journalist on board the plane was arrested along with his female companion.

Belarus has said it acted legally and in accordance with all international norms, and accused the West of using the episode to try to undermine Lukashenko.

Blinken on Thursday called on Minsk "to immediately release all political prisoners (and) to engage in sincere facilitated dialogue with the democratic opposition and civil society."

(Reporting by Tim Ahmann; writing by Costas Pitas; Editing by Sandra Maler)

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