Security threat prompts Albania to relocate match with Israel
JERUSALEM/TIRANA (Reuters) - Albanian authorities have moved Saturday's World Cup Group G qualifier with Israel from the northern city of Shkoder to a venue near the capital Tirana due to security concerns, the Israeli FA said on Tuesday.
Israel Radio said Albanian security forces had made at least four arrests of suspects with links to Islamic State who were planning to attack the Israeli team. It said a security detail that always accompanies the Israeli national team abroad would be beefed up.
Albanian media quoted a prosecutor as saying that the four were arrested after security agencies checked information from the Israeli secret service.
In a closed court session, the suspects denied any wrongdoing and said they were being punished only for their belief in Islam, the prosecutor was quoted as saying.
The Albanian Interior Ministry declined to comment on the arrests, but a source familiar with the matter told Reuters "their plan was not to hit the Israeli players or members of their support staff directly, but cause mayhem in the stands".
Newspapers reported the suspects were linked to a group arrested in neighbouring Kosovo on Saturday suspected of planning attacks in the Balkans and receiving instructions from militants in Syria.
The biggest-selling Albanian daily Panorama reported that the Israeli and the Albanian security service believed the four "were trying to secure explosive devices and introduce them into the soccer stadium in Shkoder".
The Albanian anti-terror squad and secret service had monitored calls they made with active members of Islamic State in Syria, according to Albanian news reports.
"Following the request by the Albanian FA to FIFA to move the match against Israel from Shkoder due to security concerns, FIFA has ruled (that it be moved) ... and the Israeli FA has given its consent," a statement by the Israeli FA said.
The game will take place at the Elbasan Arena near Tirana.
Albania and Israel lie third and fourth respectively in Group G and each have six points from three matches. Spain top the group with seven points, ahead of Italy, who also have seven points.
Albanian coach Gianni De Biasi sees Israel as the main team to beat if Albania wants to secure third place in the group since he believes his team cannot surpass Spain and Italy.
(Reporting by Benet Koleka in Tirana and Ori Lewis in Jerusalem; Editing by Ivana Sekularac and Tom Heneghan)