Yemen sacks chess team for playing against Israel

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Yemen has sacked the country's chess team and members of the governing body after its players competed against Israel at a tournament in Belarus.

The Yemeni Sports minister, Hamud Mohammed Ubad, took the unusual decision after players ignored instructions to pull out if drawn against Israel, which is widely criticised in the Middle East for its policies towards the Palestinians.

"This was an individual action contrary to the policy of Yemen, which refuses any normalisation with Israel," said Mr Ubad, adding that the players were on their way home from Minsk.

Like several other Middle Eastern countries, Yemen does not have diplomatic relations with Israel and bars travellers from entering the country if they have Israeli stamps in their passports.

Most Arab states, with the notable exceptions of Jordan and Egypt, have long shunned relations with Israel in protest at its decades-long occupation of the Palestinian territories. Syria and Lebanon, both of which share a border with Israel, consider themselves still at war with Israel. Qatar, which tried to restore diplomatic ties with Israel last year, was rebuffed.

Political tensions have frequently spilled over into the sporting arena, despite impassioned appeals from sporting bodies to keep sport separate from politics.

The United Arab Emirates came under fire last year when it denied a visa to Shahar Peer, a leading Israeli tennis player. The UAE said it feared for her safety in the wake of Israel's military offensive in Gaza that killed up to 1,400 Palestinians. Peer was allowed to compete in Dubai this year, however.

Chess is not immune to the same pressures. Last year, Israel's chess federation protested to the Turkish organisers of a junior chess tournament who refused to play the Israeli national anthem for the Israeli victor, breaking with years of tradition.

Turkey, which came close to severing relations with Israeli earlier this year after a deadly raid on a Turkish-owned aid ship bound for Gaza, has been increasingly outspoken in its opposition to Israel since the Gaza offensive.

Libya, which has described Israel's existence as "fictitious", provoked controversy at the international chess championship in Tripoli in 2004 when it denied visas to Israeli competitors.

Israel, whose game has greatly benefited from the influx of chess-playing Russian immigrants, is fifth in the world chess rankings out of 154 countries. Yemen is 89th.