3 blasts in Athens stir fear on Olympics

Posted in Terrorism | 06-May-04 | Author: Anthee Carassava and Thomas Fu| Source: International Herald Tribune

Countries review security and ponder restricting athletes

ATHENS - Leading Olympic teams Wednesday began reviewing security arrangements for the Athens Games this summer after the latest in a string of explosions targeted a police precinct in the Greek capital.

Australia ordered its intelligence services to reassess the "threat level" at the Games and Prime Minister John Howard said he did not rule out sending armed guards to Athens to protect Australian athletes.

The head of the France's Olympic office in Greece, Jean-Michel Brun, told French radio that officials were considering keeping athletes at the Games only as long as necessary.

Sending athletes back to France as soon as they finish their competition, he said, "is one possibility that has not been ruled out."

No one was hurt in the three blasts, which coincidentally or not occurred exactly 100 days before the Games are scheduled to begin Aug. 13.

But the bombs were powerful enough that a local police official, George Angellakos, told reporters in Athens that the people who planted them "did not want to just make themselves heard, they wanted to harm people."

Greece is spending $1 billion on security preparations, more than three times what Australian authorities budgeted for the Sydney 2000 Games. The Games will be the first summer Olympics since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, in the United States.

Greek authorities have taken the unprecedented step of enlisting the help of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization for air and sea patrols, have wired Athens with more than 1,300 closed-circuit television cameras and say they will have 50,000 security personnel on the ground.

But the blasts Wednesday were a grim reminder of the risks of hosting the Olympics at such a globally unsettled time.

The bombing also appeared to show that Greece has not totally emerged from the shadow of domestic terrorism, as Greek leaders had claimed.

Lefteris Economou, a police spokesman, said the bombings were the work of "fringe Greek extremists."

He spoke by phone from Washington, where senior Greek security officials are holding Olympic-related security talks with the American government.

But the premier of Australia's New South Wales state, which hosted the Sydney Olympics, Bob Carr, said it did not matter if it was domestic or foreign terrorism. "Even if it's established it's not Al Qaeda, even if it were established it's not an international terrorist group, it would still be very, very worrying," Carr was quoted as saying by news agencies.

Officials said the bombs, which were made up of several sticks of dynamite connected to a detonator and a clock, were similar to the devices planted outside Athens court buildings in September and a Citibank branch in March. Police say a group called the Revolutionary Struggle was responsible for those earlier blasts.

Analysts speculated that the attacks Wednesday, which wrecked part of a police precinct garage and damaged nearby cars and shops, were designed to retaliate against police crackdowns after the breakup of the domestic terrorist group known as November 17.

An anonymous caller warned a local newspaper of the attacks 45 minutes before the bombs went off.

Greek officials played down the blast. Prime Minister Kostas Karamanlis said it was "an isolated incident that does not effect Olympic security preparations whatsoever."

The Greek public order minister, Yiorgos Voulgarakis, who is in charge of security at the Games, issued a statement saying "it is becoming clear that the action comes from domestic, extremist elements without particular capabilities and perspective."

Tony Blair, the British prime minister, said in London that he had "every faith" in the way the Greek authorities are handling security preparations.

"Our present view is that the Games should go ahead as planned," Blair told the House of Commons.

Thomas Bach, a vice president of the International Olympic Committee, gave a more nuanced assessment.

"We can only repeat openly that 100 percent security doesn't exist," he said.

The IOC recently took out an unusual insurance policy against the cancellation of the Athens Games in case of war, terrorism or natural disaster.

In addition to NATO, Greece has sought help from Germany, Australia, Spain, the United States, France Britain and Israel.

Anthee Carassava reported from Athens and Thomas Fuller reported from Paris.