Yemen has stepped up security measures to head off any militant threats to the 20th Gulf Cup, which gets under way today in two southern cities that have been recent flashpoints of violence.
Officials said 30,000 Yemeni troops have been deployed to maintain calm in the southern port town of Aden, where two explosions blamed on separatists hit the local stadium last month, and Abyan, a flashpoint southern province where state forces recently launched a campaign to root out al Qa'eda militants.
"There are no security concerns now. We have strengthened security to assure our Gulf brothers that everything is safe," a security official said on Saturday.
The troop deployment came as the Yemen-based branch of al Qa'eda, which is very active in the south, vowed further small but frequent attacks in a "strategy of a thousand cuts" that will "bleed the enemy to death".
Failure to prevent any attack during the eight-team tournament would be a blow to Yemen, which rose to the forefront of international security concerns when two US-bound parcel bombs claimed by al Qa'eda were intercepted in Britain and Dubai last month.
Jaseb Majeed, the media manager of the UAE Football Association, said all the teams participating in the tournament were reviewing the situation in Yemen "on a day-to-day basis," adding, "At this point in time, everything is okay." The 25-man UAE squad travelled to Yemen yesterday and was scheduled to meet Iraq in a first-round, Group B match tomorrow.
"Everything is excellent. Everything is fine," said Rashid al Zaabi, a spokesman for the UAE Football Association in Aden. "There are no problems. Everything is under control."
Each delegation has a security team and will be escorted to and from stadiums and training sites by police vehicles, said Gamal al Yamani, a board member of the committee organising the tournament in Aden.
Despite the security precautions, Josef Hickersberger, the Al Wahda manager who left his job as the Bahrain national team coach because he did not want to travel to Yemen, still doubted yesterday that the Gulf Cup would take place as scheduled.
"It is hard to concentrate on the competition or preparing the team when there is an element of danger - of being hurt or even killed - whatever security measures that may have been provided," Hickersberger said.
Yemeni officials have said they expect about 13,000 cars full of Gulf visitors to arrive in Yemen to attend Gulf Cup matches.
In a sign of stepped-up security, dozens of new checkpoints dotted major streets, hotels and sports stadiums, and the Yemeni president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, travelled to Aden late on Friday to praise security measures, many of which were planned by an American firm hired for the Cup.
Yemen's hosting of the Gulf Cup faces not only threats from al Qa'eda militants.
Southern separatists have threatened to organise mass protests against the Cup, which they see as a ploy to promote unity under Mr Saleh's rule.
Two soldiers and one civilian were wounded on Saturday as security forces broke up anti-cup protests in the southern Dalea province. Another two soldiers were wounded when activists threw a grenade at them after the protest.
Yemen is under rising pressure from neighbouring Saudi Arabia as well as western powers to quell a southern separatist movement and cement a shaky truce with Shiite rebels in the north in order to focus on quashing a resurgent regional al Qa'eda wing based in the country.
Even as the focus shifts to southern security ahead of the Gulf Cup, tensions have flared in north Yemen among Shiite rebels. Shiite rebels have clashed with government aligned tribesmen and bombed several homes in the north Yemen province of Munabih over the past three days, a security official said.
The latest claims by al Qa'eda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) came in its English-language magazine, Inspire. It said the packages it put aboard cargo planes bound for the US in late October were never intended to cause mass casualties, but were aimed at creating maximum economic damage.
The parcels, which were intercepted in Dubai and Britain, were part of "Operation Haemorrhage", a plan that had cost just US$4,200 (Dh15,400) to mount, the group said in its English-language magazine, Inspire.
"To bring down America we do not need to strike big," the group said, in a translation of the magazine provided by the US-based monitoring organisation, Intelcenter.
"In such an environment of security phobia that is sweeping America, it is more feasible to stage smaller attacks that involve less players and less time to launch and thus we may circumvent the security barriers America worked so hard to erect," AQAP said.
IntelCenter chief executive Ben Venzke said the level of operational detail AQAP had provided in the magazine marked a departure for Islamists.
"We have never seen a jihadist group in the al Qa'eda orbit ever release, let alone only a few weeks after, such a detailed accounting of the philosophy, operational details, intent and next steps following a major attack," he said.
Yesterday, Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the US military's joint chiefs of staff, said al Qa'eda's Yemen-based branch is a "serious" threat to the US and has become substantially more dangerous in the past two years.
"This branch of al Qa'eda is very lethal and I believe them - in terms of what they say they're trying to do [to attack the US]," Admiral Mullen told a television interviewer.
* With additional reporting by agencies