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Caucasus unrest looms large over Winter Olympics

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A file photo of police, firefighters and ambulance trucks parked in front of Fisht Olympic stadium, at the Black Sea resort of Sochi, Russia.— PHOTO: AP
A file photo of police, firefighters and ambulance trucks parked in front of Fisht Olympic stadium, at the Black Sea resort of Sochi, Russia.— PHOTO: AP

Drones hovering overhead, robotic vehicles roaming Olympic venues to search for explosives, high-speed patrol boats sweeping the Black Sea coast — Russian officials say they will be using cutting-edge technology to make sure the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi will be “the safest Olympics in history”.

But intelligence analysts and regional experts say an Islamic insurgency raging across the North Caucasus mountains that tower over the seaside resort of Sochi presents daunting threats. Despite the deployment of tens of thousands of Russian troops, police officers and private guards, the simmering unrest in the Caucasus could put President Vladimir Putin’s pet project at risk.

The Sochi games are the first Olympics in history that are almost on the doorstep of an active insurgency whose members could potentially try to “upstage the games with some kind of attack, which would provide a kind of bad PR for the Russian government”, said Matthew Henman, a senior analyst at Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Centre in London.

Potential assailants could disrupt the games even with scarce resources, he said, pointing at the recent Boston Marathon explosions.

Police, security and medical personnel in Sochi have conducted dozens of drills to train for potential threats. Security drills have highlighted several logistical problems that could make it hard for rescue workers to respond quickly.

Nikolai Vasilyev of Sochi’s search and rescue service, who took part in the latest manoeuvres, said the exercises have been relatively small-scale and a bigger real-life challenge could prove daunting.

He said it would be hard for rescue crews to arrive quickly by road because of Sochi’s chronic traffic jams.Security always has been tight in Sochi, where Mr. Putin has a presidential residence that he uses often and where he frequently hosts visiting foreign leaders.

The government has further tightened security before the games, which officially begin February 7.

It has deployed 25,000 police officers and thousands of other military and security personnel to protect the city, patrol Olympic facilities, screen incoming vehicles and X-ray construction materials for explosives.

The Defence Ministry has sent a special forces brigade of battle-hardened veterans of the Chechen wars.

The government also has spent big on security equipment, providing security forces with drones, robotic vehicles to search for and defuse mines and new high-speed patrol boats.But Russia’s recent history shows that security cordons aren’t always effective. — AP

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