By Andrius Sytas
VILNIUS (Reuters) -A group of 35 countries, including the United States, Germany and Australia, will demand that Russian and Belarusian athletes are banned from the 2024 Olympics, the Lithuanian sports minister said on Friday, deepening the uncertainty over the Paris Games.
The move cranks up the pressure on an International Olympic Committee (IOC) that is desperate to avoid what is arguably the worlds' biggest sporting event being torn asunder by the bloody conflict unfolding in Ukraine.
"We are going in the direction that we would not need a boycott because all countries are unanimous," Jurgita Siugzdiniene said.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy took part in the online meeting attended by 35 ministers to discuss the call for the ban, a Lithuanian sports ministry spokesperson said earlier.
The spokesperson said Zelenskiy's message to participants was that principles of neutrality cannot apply to Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
With war raging in Ukraine, the Baltic States, Nordic countries and Poland had called on international sports bodies to ban Russian and Belarusian athletes from competing in the Olympics.
Russia launched a wave of attacks on Ukrainian infrastructure in the cities of Kharkiv and Zaporizhzhia on Friday morning as Ukrainian officials said a long-awaited Russian offensive was under way in the east.
Ukraine has threatened to boycott the games if Russian and Belarusian athletes compete and Ukrainian boxer Oleksandr Usyk has said Russians will win "medals of blood, deaths and tears" if allowed to take part.
Such threats have revived memories of boycotts in the 1970s and 1980s during the Cold War era that still haunt the global Olympic body today, and it has called on Ukraine to drop them.
However, Polish Sports Minister Kamil Bortniczuk said that a boycott was not on the table for now.
"It's not time to talk about a boycott yet," he told a news conference, saying there were other ways of putting pressure on the IOC that could be explored first.
He said that creating a team of refugees that would include Russian and Belarusian dissidents could be a compromise solution.
The IOC has opened the door for Russian and Belarusian athletes to compete as neutrals. It has said a boycott will violate the Olympic Charter and that its inclusion of Russians and Belarusians is based on a U.N. resolution against discrimination within the Olympic movement.
Some 18 months before the competition is due to start, the IOC is desperate to calm the waters so as not to imperil the games' message of global peace and deliver a huge hit to income.
While Anne Hidalgo, the mayor of host city Paris, has said Russian athletes should not take part, aris 2024 organisers have said they will abide by the IOC's decision on the issue.
(Reporting by Andrius Sytas, additional reporting by Anna Wlodarczak-Semczuk, Kuba Stezycki, Pawel Florkiewicz, writing by Alan Charlish; Editing by Toby Chopra and Tomasz Janowski)