November 12, 2016

TIRANA, Albania (AP) The religious leader of Albania's Muslim community has welcomed the Israel soccer team for a World Cup qualifier later Saturday.

Grand Mufti Skender Brucaj used his Facebook page on Saturday to wish ''sportsmen and guests from Israel a calm and peaceful stay in the Albanian land!''

Some 2,000 police have surrounded the stadium, with extensive checks on supporters going to the Group G match.

Albanian police say they have taken extreme steps to secure the qualifier. Small shops, coffee bars, and other businesses near the stadium have been closed. The main road between the match venue Elbasan and the capital Tirana was closed three hours ahead of the match.

Fans were advised not to bring fireworks, bottles, big or racist banners and anything metal, including home or car keys.

Brucaj said he was proud of Albania's ''high human values, that of generosity, and religious tolerance and harmony.''

''Proud of our predecessors, Albanian Muslims, believers and generous ones who sheltered thousands of Israelis at their homes during World War II, turning into the only country in Europe with more Israelis after the war than before it started,'' he said.

Mergim Mavraj, playing for Albania and a Muslim, also welcomed Israel in ''the country of religious tolerance and harmony. We do not need extreme security when we go out of our house,'' he said.

The venue was changed for ''security reasons'' from the northern city of Shkoder, near the border with Montenegro, to Elbasan, much nearer to the capital Tirana.

The decision followed media reports that an alleged terror group of 15 persons, arrested in Albania, Kosovo and Macedonia, planned an attack during the match.

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