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THE WORLD | TERROR IN MADRID

A Shadow Cast Over Olympics

Greece asks NATO for security help as Madrid bombings renew focus on the safety of athletes and visitors to the Games in August.

March 13, 2004|Alan Abrahamson | Times Staff Writer

With Europe reeling from the Madrid bombings, concerns continue to mount over Greece's ability to keep this summer's Athens Olympics safe from terrorism, even as it spends a record $820 million on security.

Patrols were stepped up at rail facilities throughout Athens after Thursday's deadly explosions. Also Friday, the Greek government asked NATO for security assistance -- an acknowledgment that the small host nation could not by itself ensure the safety of thousands of athletes as well as visitors from around the world.

The request had been in the works for several weeks and was delayed until after last weekend's Greek elections, officials said. But its timing -- one day after terrorists jolted the continent -- has put a renewed focus on security planning for the first Summer Olympics to be held since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States and the war in Iraq.

Despite a security budget that is about triple the amount spent to protect the 2000 Sydney Games, security planning in Athens is "a work in progress," said a senior source who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "And it's probably going to be a work in progress up until the end of the Games," on Aug. 29.

The source has monitored joint U.S.-Greek military training exercises, including operation "Hercules Shield," which is about halfway through its two-week scheduled run. The exercises have revealed a "lot of problems," said the source, who added that this was to be expected because the point of these training drills is to reveal vulnerabilities.

Athens' concerns are not limited to security. With the opening ceremonies scheduled for Aug. 13, five months from today, Olympic venue construction is lagging, and government ministries have recently seen wholesale turnover following last weekend's elections, in which the conservative New Democracy party swept into power.

Observers say these matters have made a complex situation even more fluid, heightening the security jitters.

"You can't get around the fact that the Summer Games are the sports equivalent of the World Trade Center towers, in prominence and in the ability to kill a lot of people," said Wayne Merry, a former U.S. diplomat in Athens who was involved in counter-terrorism issues there and has closely followed security preparations for the 2004 Games. "If you know Al Qaeda, that's what they want."

Nonetheless, Greek authorities say they expect no major revisions to the overall security plan, budgeted at 650 million euros, or more than $820 million. They say that the deadly bombings of British targets in November in Istanbul, in neighboring Turkey, had already made plain to Olympic security planners that Greece is at risk.

The Summer Games will draw about 10,500 athletes and roughly double that number in coaches, officials and other accredited members of the so-called "Olympic family." Organizers expect more than 5 million spectators will attend.

International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge is due in Athens today to meet with Costas Karamanlis, the newly elected prime minister.

Asked repeatedly about the security by reporters during a visit to Athens late last month, Rogge said experts have given the IOC a "very positive" assessment. A seven-nation advisory group has been working closely for months with Olympic planners -- officers and agents from the U.S., Great Britain, Israel, Australia, France, Germany and Spain.

"Does this mean there is zero risk?" Rogge said. "Of course not. No one can guarantee zero risk. What you can guarantee is that every measure that can be taken has been taken and provided for, and for the rest you can ask me a question at the closing ceremony."

The request for NATO aid includes soldiers trained to respond to chemical and biological attacks, and air and sea support. It is expected to be approved; a time frame is uncertain.

The plea underscores the fact that Greece, whose population of about 10.5 million is only about 1 million more than Los Angeles County's, needs help to mount the kind of security effort seen, for example, at the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City.

"Everyone understands and accepts the importance of the 2004 Olympic Games for Greece and the world," said George Savvaides, the Greek ambassador to the U.S. He added that Greece is "committed to doing everything possible" and that "no one should doubt our commitment for safe and secure" Games.

But Merry, the former diplomat, suggested that another motivation might be at work.

Though the Greek government has insisted on being in charge, the request for NATO aid "sets things up if things go wrong so that they can point the finger at foreigners," Merry said.

He added: "Let's not forget that 'scapegoat' is a Greek invention, along with democracy and a lot of other things."

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