Security fears about Sochi Olympics rising
Olympic officials have accepted his assurances, but as the opening ceremony on Feb. 7 nears, so do the jitters.
In the past few days, police in Sochi have begun a search for three women identified as potential suicide bombers. On Sunday, an Islamist militant group posted a video threatening an attack on the games. Last month, suicide bombers struck at the main train station and on a trolley bus in Volgograd, about 400 miles northeast of Sochi, killing 34.
Yesterday, President Barack Obama and Putin discussed in a phone call how best to have a “safe and secure” Winter Olympics, the White House said. A White House statement gave few details about what exactly the leaders discussed.
Nearly every day, police engage in shootouts with militants in Dagestan, 380 miles to the east of Sochi. Yesterday, troops fatally shot the leader of a militant group there, Interior Ministry spokeswoman Fatina Ubaidatova said. She said the militant, Eldar Magatov, was wanted in attacks on security forces, bombings and the extortion of businessmen.
Interior Ministry troops elsewhere in Dagestan defused an explosive device placed near a village administration building and engaged in a firefight with militants holed up in a house, the spokeswoman said.
The news has jangled nerves even as it focuses attention on the vast security effort the Russian government has mobilized in Sochi. Putin has deployed up to 60,000 police personnel, troops and special forces to Sochi — double the number Britain enlisted in London for the 2012 Summer Games.
The security services have the technology in place to monitor phone calls, emails and Internet activity in Sochi, among Russians and foreigners alike.
In November, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev permitted the collection of telephone and email metadata from foreign journalists, Olympic officials and athletes, according to journalists in Russia.
In addition, the Pentagon has offered air and sea support, including two Navy ships in the Black Sea, if needed.
And yesterday in Brussels, U.S. military officials proposed sharing techniques to combat improvised explosive devices if the methods were compatible with Russian equipment, according to a dispatch by American Forces Press Service, the Pentagon’s internal news outlet.
Putin told television journalists in an interview broadcast over the weekend that a prepared Russia knows what it must do: “We have a perfect understanding of what it is, what is that threat, how to stop it, how to combat it. I hope that our law-enforcement agencies will deal with it with honor and dignity, just as it was during other major sports and political events.”
Still, police fliers in Sochi warning about the three suspected terrorists have set off widespread anxiety. One of them, the 22-year-old wife of a slain Islamist militant, could be in Sochi, the leaflets said. Two other women, also shown wearing veils, were being sought, although their possible presence in Sochi was not mentioned.
The circulars raised a widespread fear of the widows of dead militants from the North Caucasus — near Sochi — who might carry out suicide bombings in revenge. Known as “black widows,” they have haunted the Russian imagination since two women blew themselves up on Moscow subway trains in 2010.
Warnings about terrorism suspects are “normal for Moscow,” said Andrei Soldatov, an investigative journalist who has written extensively about the security services. “But Sochi is completely different. It’s supposed to be a closed fortress.”
Sochi was “closed” on Jan. 7, when non-Sochi cars were denied access and intense security measures went into effect. “There are patrols everywhere,” Soldatov said.
A U.S. congressman who was in Sochi yesterday to assess the situation said he was impressed by the work of Russian security forces but troubled that potential suicide bombers had gotten into the city despite the extraordinary security measures.
“We know some of them got through the perimeter,” said Rep. Michael McCaul, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee. “She’s for real. What we don’t know is how many more black widows are out there.”
McCaul, R-Texas, said he had numerous meetings with officials in Moscow and Sochi and was briefed by the joint operation center in Sochi, which is responsible for overall security in the area. “The one improvement I would ask of the Russians is to allow our intelligence services to coordinate and cooperate better with theirs,” he said.
“I’m quite worried about the large number of troops,” Soldatov said, “which might be important if you are thinking of a large-scale attack, but in Sochi you should be thinking about intelligence.”
“They confuse control with security,” he said.
Information from the Associated Press and Reuters was included in this story.