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Last Updated: Wednesday, 23 March 2005, 11:43 GMT
Fischer 'put Iceland on the map'
By Laura Smith-Spark
BBC News

Boris Spassky and Bobby Fischer
Fischer's troubles began after his Yugoslav rematch with Spassky

Extending the hand of friendship to a man viewed as a paranoid recluse with extreme views may seem a puzzling move.

It becomes even more inexplicable when to do so could earn you the disapproval of the US, a powerful enemy.

Yet Iceland has awarded citizenship to ex-chess champion Bobby Fischer in recognition of a 30-year-old match that put the country "on the map".

His historic win over Russian Boris Spassky in Reykjavik in 1972 shone the international spotlight on Iceland as never before.

Now Iceland is keen to repay the favour by offering sanctuary to Mr Fischer, an American citizen.

The chess player has been detained in Japan since July for trying to leave on an allegedly revoked US passport.

He is also wanted in the US for violating international sanctions against the former Yugoslavia by playing there in 1992.

There is a certain feeling of solidarity, not with his views but with an exceptional champion who is in difficulties
Gunnar Snorr Gunnarsson
Foreign ministry

Nonetheless, Japan now seems willing to ignore US extradition demands and allow Mr Fischer to travel to Iceland.

Iceland's parliament voted overwhelmingly this week to grant Mr Fischer citizenship - and with it an Icelandic passport.

It followed a decision last December to offer the chess player a residency visa.

Gunnar Snorr Gunnarsson, permanent secretary in Iceland's foreign affairs ministry, told the BBC News website at the time that his country had been unable to ignore the grandmaster's direct appeal for help.

He said both chess and Mr Fischer retained a special place in Icelandic culture.

Reykjavik, Iceland's capital
Chess holds an enduring place in Iceland's history and culture
"There is a certain feeling of solidarity, not with his views but with an exceptional champion who is in difficulties," Mr Gunnarsson said.

"In his time he also contributed to a rather special event here, over 30 years ago but that people remember very well."

He said public reaction in Iceland to the offer of residency for Mr Fischer had been "overwhelmingly positive".

The US has expressed disappointment at Iceland's move and called Mr Fischer a "fugitive from justice" faced with a federal warrant for his arrest.

The 62-year-old recluse has alienated many in his homeland by broadcasting anti-Semitic diatribes and expressing support for the 11 September 2001 attacks.

It was a brave decision on behalf of the Icelandic government and an admirable one
Lilja Gretasdottir
Icelandic chess federation
Mr Gunnarsson said: "We have been anxious to convey to our American friends that this is a purely humanitarian gesture and we certainly do not endorse some of his statements.

"Simply we would like this to be a token of respect towards an exceptional chess player."

Lilja Gretasdottir, president of Iceland's chess federation, said in December that the decision to offer Mr Fischer residency was "wonderful news".

"It was a brave decision on behalf of the Icelandic government and an admirable one," she said.

"A lot of Icelanders - even if they have no interest in chess - feel attached to the memory of Bobby Fischer."

'Our Beckham'

She said she doubted Mr Fischer would sit down at the chessboard with Icelanders if he came but he would be welcome nonetheless.

"As long as we know he is safe and a free man, that is enough for us. It's the same as for any other human being," she said.

"His only crime was to play chess but playing chess is not a crime."

One chess player cannot upset the good relations we have with the US
Pall Stefansson
Iceland Review magazine
Pall Stefansson, of the Iceland Review news magazine and website, said people were prepared to make allowances for Mr Fischer's controversial behaviour because "he put Iceland on the international map".

He said Icelanders, who form part of the coalition forces in Iraq, were unconcerned about the consequences of supporting Mr Fischer against US wishes.

"I think it's Icelandic stubbornness, that maybe we do what we like," he said.

"One chess player cannot upset the good relations we have with the US and everyone here thinks it's kind of strange the Americans do this... because he's played chess in Serbia.

"For us he has the status of a football player, he is like our David Beckham."

Iceland grants Fischer passport
21 Mar 05 |  Asia-Pacific
Fischer 'must be deported to US'
15 Mar 05 |  Asia-Pacific
Fischer demands to go to Iceland
24 Dec 04 |  Asia-Pacific
Fischer plans to marry in Japan
17 Aug 04 |  Asia-Pacific
Fischer to renounce US status
06 Aug 04 |  Asia-Pacific

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