Image source, Getty ImagesImage caption, The players were taking part in the U-23 baseball World Cup in Mexico

At least nine young Cuban baseball players have defected during a tournament in Mexico, officials say, in the largest defection of Cuban athletes in years.

Cuban officials called the players' actions during the World Cup for athletes under the age of 23 "vile abandonments", state media report.

The rest of the team, which originally had 24 players, will return on Monday.

Cuban athletes have a long history of defecting while competing abroad.

Baseball players often leave to sign up with Major League Baseball (MLB) clubs in the US, as strained relations between the US and Cuba prevent them from taking part in a regular hiring process.

The statement by Cuba's National Sports Institute, published on the official JIT website and quoted by the Associated Press news agency, did not name the players who had stayed in Mexico.

But baseball journalist Francys Romero said a total of 12 players had defected.

A deal that allowed some Cuban players to sign with MLB clubs was cancelled by President Donald Trump in 2018, in an attempt to pressure the island's Communist government to implement political changes. The agreement meant athletes no longer had to abscond and leave Cuba illegally.

The most recent high-profile player to defect was 22-year-old César Prieto, one of the country's top baseball stars, who abandoned the team earlier this year while in Florida for an Olympics qualifying event.

Ballet dancers and footballers are also among athletes who have fled during major competitions.

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Cuba is in the midst of an economic crisis, with food and medicine shortages, and has been hit hard by US sanctions and Covid-19. In July, thousands of people joined the biggest anti-government protests in the island for decades.

Media caption, Thousands protested in Cuba in July over the government's handling of coronavirus and the economy