- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 8, 2015

The African Cup of Nations will return to familiar territory in 2017 after Gabon was chosen as host Wednesday to replace Libya, sending the tournament back to the country that co-hosted it just three years ago.

Gabon defeated bids from Algeria and Ghana in a vote by the Confederation of African Football’s executive committee in Cairo.

Gabon follows the lead of 2012 hosting partner and neighbor Equatorial Guinea, which stood in at short notice to stage this year’s tournament in January and February. That happened after Morocco was removed because of a dispute over Ebola.

Gabon now also gets to put on the 16-team African soccer championship on its own because Libya withdrew from 2017 duties citing security concerns.

Two venues - the capital Libreville and the eastern city of Franceville - hosted games in Gabon’s shared 2012 tournament. The Central African country will need another two stadiums to meet the minimum criteria of four, and says it is planning to have stadiums ready in Port-Gentil and the northern town of Oyem by the middle of next year.

War-torn Libya was initially scheduled to host back in 2013 but swapped with South Africa in the hope that it would be ready by 2017. It conceded last August that it wouldn’t be, with ongoing violence following the 2011 overthrow and killing of dictator Moammar Gadhafi.

Gabon’s selection means five straight African Cups will be in Central or West Africa, with the three after 2017 already decided. Cameroon will host in 2019, Ivory Coast in 2021 and Guinea in 2023.

The Algerian bid’s failure will also revive talk of an anti-North African bias within Africa’s top soccer body, which has been led by Cameroon’s Issa Hayatou since 1988.

Rifts between North African nations and Hayatou’s CAF emerged around this year’s African Cup, with Morocco and Tunisia both taking CAF to sport’s highest court. Egypt was also among the original contenders to host 2017 but withdrew, saying it would support its fellow North African bid from Algeria.

Samir Lamari, head of sports at Algeria’s Liberte newspaper, said he was surprised at Algeria’s failure and returning the tournament to Gabon “flies in the face of the principle of rotation.”

However, North African hosts have been problematic for CAF in recent years after Libya first asked for a change for 2013.

This year, Moroccan authorities asked for it to be postponed because of fears over the spread of the Ebola virus from West Africa during the event. CAF refused to change the dates, stripped Morocco of the tournament and handed it to Equatorial Guinea.

Morocco was also banned from the 2017 and 2019 tournaments because of its failure to host, but had that decision overturned by the Court of Arbitration for Sport and has been reinstated. Tunisia accused CAF of being biased against it because of a contentious on-field decision at this year’s Cup of Nations, and was threatened with a ban from playing in 2017 unless it apologized.

Qualifying for 2017 will begin in June with 52 of CAF’s 54 member countries listed to take part. Somalia and Eritrea did not enter.

In the qualifying draw made by CAF later Wednesday, defending champion Ivory Coast was drawn in a group with Sudan, Sierra Leone and Gabon. The new host will still play in the qualifiers but its games will be given friendly status and won’t count for points.

In possibly the toughest group, three-time champion Nigeria and record seven-time winner Egypt were drawn together.

The top team in each of the 13 groups and the two best second-placed teams will qualify for the final tournament alongside Gabon.

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Follow Gerald Imray on Twitter at www.twitter.com/GeraldImrayAP

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