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RABAT (Reuters) - Morocco has refused to host January’s African Nations Cup soccer finals amid fears over the spread of the Ebola virus, throwing the 2015 tournament into jeopardy on Saturday.
The country, which had already said it wanted the 16-team event postponed, rejected an ultimatum set by the Confederation of African Football to confirm the hosting of the continental championship due to take place Jan. 17-Feb. 8.
A statement from Morocco’s sports ministry said: "The decision is dictated by health reasons because of the serious threat of Ebola and the risk of its spreading."
A decision on the tournament will now be made next week when CAF has an executive committee meeting in Cairo but Morocco will almost certainly be stripped as hosts.
CAF said earlier on Saturday it would make no statement until after Tuesday’s meeting.
In addition to medical risks, the Moroccan government statement said the decision was "also motivated by humanitarian reasons since it is our responsibility to welcome all our guests and supporters in the best conditions in accordance with the culture and hospitality Moroccan traditions".
Morocco is concerned that supporters from west Africa converging on the country for the tournament could bring with them the deadly virus and put at risk their important tourist industry.
They asked CAF to postpone the event to June, or even January 2016, but this was rejected last week by African soccer’s governing body, who set Morocco a deadline of Saturday to confirm it would host the three-week tournament.
CAF can now either move the event to another country –- although it has had no public expression of interest from nations it approached to be on standby as possible emergency hosts –- or cancel it at great financial cost.
CAF accused Morocco of being alarmist in its fears over the spread of the virus, which has caused almost 5,000 deaths in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone, and set out a lengthy list of reasons why it felt they could still host the tournament without any risk.
There is unlikely to be a team from the worst affected area in the finals.
However, global health authorities are struggling to contain the world's worst Ebola epidemic since the disease was identified in 1976 and cases have reached as far as the United States and Spain.
Morocco has therefore stood firm on its refusal to host in January and could face sanctions including the possibility of a lengthy ban from future Nations Cup tournaments.
The Moroccans did offer in Saturday’s statement to host the 2017 finals.
The tournament is African soccer’s showpiece but has a turbulent history, with several prospective hosts like Kenya, Libya, Zambia and Zimbabwe pulling out or being stripped of hosting rights in the past after being awarded the tournament.
Libya gave up the hosting of the 2017 finals in August because of security issues and stadium delays and CAF must find a replacement.
The 2019 finals are set for Cameroon, 2021 in the Ivory Coast and 2023 in Guinea.
Writing by Mark Gleeson in Johannesburg; Editing by Mark Meadows; firstname.lastname@example.org; +44 20 7542 7933; Reuters Messaging:; email@example.com