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European Championship security to have German flavor

May 18, 2008|From the Associated Press

GENEVA -- Security arrangements for next month's European Championship will have a strong German flavor.

Co-hosts Austria and Switzerland learned much from studying their neighbor when it hosted a World Cup two years ago. That tournament was praised by fans and visitors from across the world for having excellent organization, as well as a party atmosphere.

Both relatively small countries will also rely on reinforcements from German and French police on match days.

"Close international cooperation is indispensable in coping with a major event such as the Euro 2008," Swiss security spokesman Martin Jagged said.

Germany is sending 850 police officers to support its Austrian colleagues, while Switzerland's federal council has approved funds for a maximum of 5,250 operation days in crowd control: 4,500 days by German police in Basel and Zurich, 750 by French officers in Geneva.

All will remain under the authority of their hosts, who can also call upon up to 15,000 Swiss Army personnel on standby.

"The capacity of all the relevant services is geared toward everyday needs and therefore cannot cope with such exceptional requirements," said Benedict Weibel, the Euro 2008 delegate for the Swiss council of ministers.

The security bill in Switzerland is budgeted at about $61 million, with just over half paid from federal funds and the rest coming from taxpayers in the 26 cantons, which are like states.

All cantons must provide police for the four host cities that are responsible for public safety.

The Swiss practice this kind of federal cooperation at the World Economic Forum when protecting world political and business leaders at the mountain resort of Davos every January.

The German theme also applies to the most likely trouble spots.

Two out of 24 matches in the opening group stage have been assigned "red" status as a security priority and both involve Germany: against Poland and Croatia in the small Austrian city of Klagenfurt.

Austria will deploy 27,000 police officers for the tournament, and it has trained about 2,000 commandos to deal specifically with hooligans.

Officers have been pelting one another with fake firebombs and tennis balls to simulate stones so they'll know how to respond to the real thing and get a better feel for their helmets, shields and other protective gear.

Officials chopped down all of the old trees that shaded the perimeter of Vienna's Ernst Happel Stadium for decades. They angered environmentalists, but said the step was necessary to make sure rowdy fans don't climb the trees or use them as staging points for throwing bottles and rocks.

The stadium will host the final on June 29, and it's that single big match that most worries Austrian authorities.

Nationwide, police say they'll be on the lookout for known troublemakers at the borders with Switzerland, Germany and Liechtenstein, where security checks will be stepped up.

"We have an early warning system with information about hooligans so we can intervene," said Elmar Marent, chief of public security in the westernmost province of Vorarlberg.

Specialist officers from the other 14 competing nations will travel with visiting fans and act as hooligan "spotters" at the stadiums and in the fan zones and camping sites, which are an important part of the security strategy in the eight host cities.

Austrian authorities also plan to boost the police presence in their so-called "fan miles" -- zones in squares, parks and other areas where giant screens will be erected so people unable to get tickets can watch the action for free.

A lesson learned at the German World Cup is that these screenings keep fans grouped together and defuse tension that might build up among ticketless fans.

Also, UEFA has imposed a blanket ban on alcohol sales inside the stadiums.

Ottakringer, a leading Austrian brewery, has created an unofficial light "fan beer" for sale elsewhere in hopes that the lower-alcohol brew will help cut down on drunkenness. Police have been pressing vendors to make sure it's served only in plastic cups that can't be used as projectiles.

Austria's federal counterterrorism agency will be on heightened alert throughout the tournament, though officials said they had no information pointing to a concrete threat.

Despite the elaborate precautions, authorities appear resigned to the likelihood there will be trouble.

In Salzburg, officials said they're preparing to move up to 180 male and female prisoners to jails elsewhere in Austria so space will be available for soccer hooligans. Officials in Vienna, Innsbruck and Klagenfurt said they're doing the same.

"The worst-case scenario would be if more than 50 or 100 detainees are delivered to us all at the same time, just when our investigators are all out at hospitals conducting interviews," said Karin Goell, a senior justice official in Salzburg. "It would create a real bottleneck."

In Geneva, home of the European headquarters of the United Nations, the city's ice rink is being converted into an all-night nightclub to help keep fans off the streets.

"We can have 60,000 people watching at the fan zone in Plainpalais and another 30,000 at the camping site at Bout-du-Monde," Geneva police spokesman Patrick Pulh said. "When you have a lot of people like that it could be a problem, but in Switzerland we are expecting the tournament to be a big party."

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