SHARM EL SHEIKH, Egypt — Fighting between separatists and government forces, along with concerns its stadiums won't be ready, have left Cameroon facing the possibility Saturday of being stripped of its hosting of next year's African Cup of Nations soccer tournament.
Tournament organizer the Confederation of African Football declined to back the country as host after a two-day meeting of its executive committee in Egypt. Instead, CAF said it was delaying a decision on Cameroon's staging of the continent's top soccer event until the end of November, and after two more inspection visits.
That will be just over six months before the African Cup kicks off. Morocco is a possible replacement host for the tournament in June and July if Cameroon, which was chosen in 2014, is dropped.
The first inspection visit next month will be by a joint CAF-FIFA delegation to assess the security situation in the western part of Cameroon, where bloody fighting between the government and English-speaking separatists started in late 2016 and has escalated this year.
That visit by CAF and security experts from world body FIFA will come after Cameroon's Oct. 7 presidential election, when the violence could come to a head.
"We have to wait (to see) what is going to happen with the elections," CAF deputy secretary general Anthony Baffoe said in an interview with the BBC. "That is why also we said after the elections we do the next inspection visit.
"Then I think you can have a bit more feeling about the political situation and what is going on."
There has been "horrific escalation of violence" in Cameroon's southwest and northwest, Amnesty International said this month, citing a graphic video of a beheaded security officer.
Two cities due to host African Cup games, Limbe and Bafoussam, are deep in those regions where the fighting is.
Claiming they are being marginalized in the largely French-speaking country, the English-speaking, or Anglophone, separatists have vowed to disrupt the presidential election and also the African Cup if it goes ahead in Cameroon next summer.
In a thinly-veiled threat, they said soccer players, officials and fans may not be safe.
"We shall not be able to guarantee the security of football players, technical staffs, members of official delegations and thousands of soccer lovers from across the world," some separatist groups said in a letter they claim to have sent to CAF in August.
If Cameroon is retained as host, it's possible that some of Africa's biggest soccer stars who feature for top European clubs would decline to go and play in a region where people are being shot and killed, bridges are being blown up and buildings torched. Up to 400 civilians have died in the violence, Amnesty said, and the killing, looting and burning has sent nearly 200,000 fleeing.
The security concern has now overtaken serious delays with stadiums and related tournament infrastructure as Cameroon's No. 1 problem.
The readiness of the country's six stadiums had already been a major headache for CAF before the upsurge in deadly violence.
Cameroon's team is the African champion and was hoping to defend its title at home.
The country's tournament preparations were also complicated when CAF expanded the tournament from 16 to 24 teams after the country was chosen as host. That increased pressure on the struggling infrastructure, requiring six stadiums and not just four like the previous two versions of the African Cup in Gabon and Equatorial Guinea.
"Definitely six venues is not easy in Africa," Baffoe said in the BBC interview.
CAF said its most recent report on Cameroon's preparations "revealed a significant delay as far as the delivery of infrastructures is concerned."
The Cup of Nations is Africa's showcase soccer tournament — probably its biggest sports event — but it's also been highly problematic for CAF in recent years.
South Africa took on the 2013 version after war-torn Libya admitted it couldn't host. Morocco was stripped as the 2015 host because of plans it was proposing to stop fans traveling from regions affected by that year's Ebola outbreak. Libya again withdrew as host two years ago, sending the African Cup back to Gabon for the second time in five years.
Held every two years, the African Cup in Ivory Coast in 2021 is also already a cause for concern, CAF said Saturday.
"Of the six stadiums required for the competition, four are to be built and two are undergoing major renovations," CAF said. "For accommodation, three out of five cities do not have the required infrastructure."
Imray reported from Port Elizabeth, South Africa.