- Associated Press - Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Defending champion Ivory Coast was drawn against Morocco and former coach Herve Renard in the group stage of next year’s African Cup of Nations, which organizers say will go ahead in Gabon despite deadly violence there following a disputed presidential election.

President Ali Bongo Ondimba, who was accused by his opponent of vote-rigging in an election he ultimately won by a razor-thin margin, was present for Wednesday’s draw in the Gabonese capital Libreville. He sat watching from the front row but didn’t address the gathering, leaving his prime minister to offer assurances that Gabon - itself a stand-in host for war-torn Libya - would be able to safely hold the 16-team African championship in January.

Opponents of Ondimba, who has been president since 2009, and whose family has ruled oil-rich Gabon since the 1960s, say around 100 people have been killed in clashes since August’s election. There are concerns that the three-week African Cup will act as a catalyst for more opposition protests, and possibly another violent government crackdown.

Even before the deteriorating political situation, the central African nation faced scrutiny over two of its four venues for the soccer games. Libreville and the eastern city of Franceville, Ondimba’s home town, previously held games when Gabon co-hosted the African Cup with neighbor Equatorial Guinea in 2012. But new and untested 20,000-seat stadiums in Oyem in the north and Port Gentil on the coast will host top-level soccer for the first time. Those stadiums face a race to be ready in time, and the quality of the facilities is unknown.

The African Cup is used to organizational problems, though.

None of the last three tournaments have been hosted by the country that was initially awarded them. South Africa replaced Libya in 2013. Equatorial Guinea stood in for Morocco in 2015 after Morocco withdrew because of fears over the spread of Ebola. Gabon was chosen to host for the second time in four years after Libya was again unable to stage the 2017 championship.

On the field, the game between Renard’s Morocco and Ivory Coast, which the Frenchman led to a long-awaited African title in Equatorial Guinea last year, will gain the most attention in Group C in Oyem, one of those two new venues. Congo and Togo make up that group.

Seven-time champion Egypt, returning to the African Cup for the first time since 2010, will face four-time winner Ghana in Group D in Port Gentil. Egypt beat Ghana in the 2010 final, when it completed a run of three straight titles before its own political upheaval led to a major dip in the team’s fortunes. Mali and Uganda also play in Group D, with Uganda qualifying for the first time since 1978.

Host Gabon’s biggest challenge in Group A is Cameroon. Gabon plays the opening game of the tournament in Libreville on Jan. 14 against Guinea-Bissau, which was the biggest surprise in qualifying and is making its African Cup debut. Burkina Faso makes up Group A.

North African rivals Algeria and Tunisia face what’s likely to be a passionate meeting in Group B in Franceville, which also contains Senegal and Zimbabwe, which is at its first African Cup since 2006.

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