Saturday, 18 September 2010

Yemen risks losing Gulf Cup over violence

ADEN, Yemen- A soccer tournament that could have given the beleaguered Yemeni people some respite from the constant specter of violence has instead highlighted the problems.

Two months before the Gulf Cup is due to start, some Persian Gulf nations are having second thoughts about sending teams amid rising attacks by resurgent al-Qaida fighters and a stubborn secessionist movement.

Some have expressed doubts about Yemen's credentials to host the eight-team tournament scheduled to take place from Nov. 22 to Dec. 4 in the southern port city of Aden, citing concerns about the government's ability to protect players in case of an attack and worries about the venues and hotels.

"We can't say Aden is not safe or is safe," said Yousef Mohamed Abdullah, general Secretary of the United Arab Emirate's Football Association, who has called for a meeting of the Gulf soccer federations to address the concerns.

"If they (federations) decide Yemen is ready, they need to help Yemen arrange the competition," Abdullah said. "If they decide Yemen is not ready, they need to find another host. But who can be ready to take the competition two months before? The time is very tight you know."

The tournament draw last month prompted leaders of a separatist movement in southern Yemen to demand that the UAE, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Qatar, Kuwait and Iraq boycott the competition. The Supreme Council of the Southern Movement said last month that participating in the 20th Gulf Cup would lend support to Yemen's government at a time when "the south is bleeding."

There also are almost daily clashes between the military and suspected al-Qaida gunmen, including an attack this month on a military checkpoint in south Yemen that left three soldiers dead and four wounded. Since May, al-Qaida has been blamed for the deaths of more than 55 soldiers.

Yemeni authorities insist that everything will be fine and confirmed plans to station some 10,000 security personnel in and around the venues as well as hundreds more volunteers to protect roads, hotels, training sites and the stadium.

"The commission has prepared a comprehensive security plan to secure the Cup and its events," said Rashad al-Alimi, deputy prime minister for security and defense affairs. "There is no need to fear."

But Bahrain and Kuwait did not send their top soccer officials to the draw, raising speculation that they were unhappy with Yemen's preparations. Bahrain is an alternative venue if Yemen is not ready.

Shaikh Ali bin Khalifa Al Khalifa, the vice president of the Bahrain Football Federation, acknowledged his federation initially "had concerns" about Yemen's readiness but had no plans at this stage to boycott.

"At the end of the day, Bahrain will participate in the event if everyone is participating, given that everything is provided including security infrastructure and all the basic elements we need to participate as a team," Al Khalifa said.

No group has threatened to attack the tournament or the teams. But sports teams and events have been among those terrorists recently have targeted in other countries.

Togo pulled out of the African Cup in January after its team bus was attacked by gunmen in Angola two days before the start of the tournament. A separatist group claimed responsibility for the attack that left an assistant coach and spokesman dead.

Last year, gunmen in Pakistan killed six policemen and a van driver when they attacked a bus carrying Sri Lankan cricketers. Several Sri Lankan cricketers were injured in the attack, which resulted in Pakistan being dropped as co-host of the 2011 World Cup, and barred from hosting any international cricket.

For any team traveling to Yemen, the threats seem to grow by the day.

The country, which is the poorest in the Arab world, is reported to be a hideout for hundreds of militants from Saudi Arabia and Yemen who united early in 2009 to form al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. Among them is the U.S.-born radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, who played a key part in the failed terrorist Christmas Day attempt to take down a Detroit-bound passenger jet.

Al-Qaida also was blamed for the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole in the port of Aden, which killed 17 American sailors.

In addition to militants in its lawless hinterland, Yemen's government is also contending with a six-year rebellion by Shiite tribesmen in the north and a separatist movement in the south, which was once a separate country.

David Hartwell, a senior Middle East and North Africa analyst with defense and security consultancy IHS Janes, said he was "surprised" the tournament had not been shifted to a neighboring country given the increasing violence.

"The obvious concern is that it is a tempting target for al-Qaida to attack especially with the participation of Saudi Arabia," Hartwell said. "There is also huge question marks over security forces being able to police the event, the capability of Yemeni intelligence, security forces and the army."

But Hartwell also said it would be a boost to Yemen if the tournament goes off without any problems.

"From Yemen's point of view, it's a public relations exercise," he said. "If they can host an event like this and pass it off with a minimum amount of disruption and no one dies, that reflects well on the government."

The CIA World Factbook on Yemen lists it as a strategic location on the Arabian Peninsula and overlooking some of the world's busiest sea lanes, with the mostly Muslim population living off declining oil revenues and even scarcer water.

More than 45 percent of the 22.8 million people live below the poverty line and the unemployment rate is more than 35 percent.

Abdullah, the United Arab Emirate's soccer official, was hopeful Yemen would be able to hold the tournament to improve the situation. He said it would allow the country to rebuild its soccer program and gain the necessary experience to someday host bigger events such as the Asian Cup, a soccer tournament featuring Asia's best teams.

"In Yemen, the people are waiting for this competition and they would love to see the Gulf players playing in their country," he said. "I'm sure the stadiums would be full. ... For sure after the tournament, Yemen clubs and football players will use these facilities and it will help improve the football in Yemen."

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