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Stockholm unable to handle switch

2/24/2009 - Tennis

STOCKHOLM -- The Davis Cup matches between Sweden and Israel will be played without spectators in Malmo next month after an
attempt to move the venue to Stockholm fell through.

Swedish organizers Tuesday cited security concerns for the
closed-door policy because anti-Israeli demonstrations are expected
during the best-of-five series March 6-8.

"It's terrible that they are trying to mix politics with
sports, especially in an enlightened country like Sweden," said
Michael Klein, chairman of the Israeli Tennis Federation.

Israeli foreign ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said Tuesday the
decision was not for his government to make.

"If local authorities decide to prevent spectators from
attending, what can I say?" Palmor said. "We leave it to local
security authorities to do what they think is best."

The action comes after the United Arab Emirates denied Israeli
tennis player Shahar Peer a visa last week, preventing her from
competing in Dubai. Organizers said they feared fan anger over
Israel's recent military offensive in Gaza. The WTA fined
organizers a record $300,000.

The UAE later granted a permit to Israeli Andy Ram to play in
this week's men's tournament.

In January, an Israeli basketball team fled to the locker room
as hundreds of Turkish fans protested the violence in Gaza. A
pro-Islamic group earlier set an Israeli flag on fire outside the
arena.

This will be the second time a Davis Cup series will be played
in an empty arena in Sweden. In 1975, two years after a military
coup in Chile led by Augusto Pinochet, Sweden played Chile in
Bastad and no spectators were allowed.

The Malmo-Stockholm matter has an unmistakable political
dimension.

Malmo, Sweden's third-largest city, has a left-leaning local
government and large Muslim population. Its leaders have strongly
criticized Israel after the Gaza invasion. Some called for dropping
the Davis Cup matches altogether.

Stockholm has a center-right majority that is more pro-Israeli.
The Swedish capital on Monday offered to step in as an alternate
venue, saying it was better prepared to guarantee security.

The plan was canceled when Stockholm officials realized they
wouldn't be able to organize in time for the Israeli team's Sunday
arrival, said Madeleine Sjostedt, Stockholm's vice mayor in charge
of culture and sports.

She said it's "regrettable that Malmo
doesn't engage in discussion with those who threaten with
violence."

Malmo mayor Ilmar Reepalu insisted the decision to bar
spectators was based solely on security. Reepalu noted that
pro-Palestinian groups disrupted a recent pro-Israel demonstration
by throwing bottles, eggs and fireworks.

"It shows the tensions that exist after the conflict in Gaza,"
Reepalu told The Associated Press by telephone.