Gulf Cup to open in violence-wracked Yemen
A regional soccer tournament is set to kick off Yemen, giving the country a chance to show it's capable of hosting international events even as it struggles with a surge in violence from al-Qaida and separatist movements.
Security was extremely tight Sunday as all eight teams began arriving for the Gulf Cup, which starts Monday and runs until Dec. 4 in the southern port city of Aden. Some soccer federations had suggested earlier on that the tournament might not happen because of safety concerns and worries that hotels and facilities would not be ready.
Dozens of checkpoints were set up across Aden and security forces established three rings of security around the city. Armored vehicles could be seen positioned just outside the city.
Gamal al-Yamani, a board member of the committee organizing the tournament, said there were more than 30,000 troops protecting the teams and that a joint American-British security team checked all the stadiums to ensure they were safe. Each delegation has a security team and is escorted to and from stadiums and training sites by police vehicles, he said.
''The brotherly Arabian Gulf delegations were surprised with the level of security and safety in Aden,'' Al-Yamani said. ''Fear-mongering didn't work.''
The teams from the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Qatar, Kuwait and Iraq seemed to be relieved with the extensive security and Sunday were shifting their focus to preparing for training ahead of their first matches. Yemen opens the tournament against Saudi Arabia and a match between Qatar and Kuwait follows.
Fans were already streaming into Aden, with hundreds of cars crossing the border between Saudi Arabia and Yemen. Others cars flying flags from Kuwait, the UAE and Saudi Arabia could be seen making their way amid heavy traffic in Aden.
''Everything is excellent. Everything is fine,'' said Rashid al-Zaabi, a spokesman for the UAE Football Association in Aden, whose team has its first match against Iraq Tuesday. ''There are no problems. Everything is under control.''
But not everyone was convinced. Several referees from Bulgaria, Russia and France pulled out of the tournament at the last minute, organizers said.
A group of hardline Muslim clerics in Yemen also issued a statement Sunday criticizing the Gulf Cup, calling it ''lecherous and immoral.''
The statement said the gender mixing, dancing and the alcohol that will be imported for the event goes against the spirit of a Muslim country.
The tournament draw in August prompted leaders of a separatist movement in southern Yemen to demand that the teams boycott the competition. The Supreme Council of the Southern Movement said 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 by suspected militants last month that killed a security chief of a southern Yemeni town and triggered a series of clashes between soldiers and militants that killed eight people, mostly government troops.
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 of Nations 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 are hard to ignore.
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.
The group claims responsibility for two mail bombs discovered last month on cargo planes destined for the United States and the U.S.-born radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki played a key part in the failed 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.
The distrust between the north and south also could be seen in the tournament preparations with the organizing committee excluding members from the south, and newspapers from the south being refused invitations.
Al-Haj reported from Aden, Yemen, and Casey from Dubai, United Arab Emirates.