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Britain beefs up Olympics security as if it’s going to war
LONDON — Woe betide the hapless backpackers who stumble upon the Olympic Park in London’s East End this summer. They may feel the might of Britain’s biggest security operation since World War II come crashing down upon them.
Camping essentials like compasses and water bottles are just some of the items banned from Olympic venues in an attempt to avoid Occupy protests that have disrupted city centers and financial districts around the world.
Other prohibited items include oversize hats and excessive amounts of food, as well as the more traditional knives, guns and liquids in amounts over 3.4 fluid ounces.
Anti-capitalist demonstrators are not the only ones targeted in the security effort, which will include the mobilization of 13,500 troops, more than the number on active duty in Afghanistan.
Alongside them in the $900 million operation — double initial cost estimates — will be 12,000 police officers, many drafted from other forces across the country, and nearly 24,000 venue security personnel working directly for the Olympic organizers.
“We know we face a real and enduring threat from terrorism, and we know that the games, as an iconic event, will represent a target for terrorist groups.”
Richard English, director of the Center for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, said the likelihood of an attack by dissident Irish rebels is as great as one by Islamic extremists, but any attempt is likely to be on a small scale.
“I don’t think it will be a serious incident. There should be no crisis of anxiety that bombs will be going off every time Usain Bolt is running,” he said, referring to the Jamaican sprinter, a five-time world and three-time Olympic champion.
“What attracts terrorists is the magnifying effect of having thousands of journalists from all over the world looking for stories to cover.”
London has faced various terrorist threats in its recent history, with the Irish Republican Army in the 1970s and 1980s and al Qaeda more recently.
Military trial run
The military contribution to the security operation was given a trial run this week, with air defense missiles tested at six potential sites near the park.
Fighter jets, accompanied by military helicopters, took to the skies over southern England to test how military personnel would intercept and communicate with aircraft breaching the 30-mile no-fly zone over Olympic Park.
The Typhoon jets are stationed at a Royal Air Force base in West London in the first deployment of military planes there since World War II.
Security officials also identified the rooftops of some houses and apartment buildings as possible sites for surface-to-air missiles and snipers, much to the surprise and anger of residents.
“It is outrageous that they are putting snipers on roofs of residential buildings,” said Josune Iriondo, who lives nearby in Hackney in North London.
“They haven’t asked permission. It’s mad. We’re not at war. It’s an infringement of civil liberties.”
Meanwhile, the Olympic Park held hockey and swimming tournaments to test safety measures like the airport-style security screenings for spectators.
The Sun newspaper reported Sunday that a builder working on the site who had expressed concern about security had passed through a number of checkpoints with a fake bomb on the passenger seat of his vehicle.
“Clearly a Tupperware box containing batteries, a mobile phone and some loose wires would not pose a threat on a construction site,” Olympic organizers said in a statement issued in response.
“However, we will be looking into the allegations to ensure that our security regimes are as robust as they need to be.”
Security gets mixed reviews
Around the park, which is separated from the rest of the city by an 11-mile, $130 million, 5,000-volt electric fence, the atmosphere remains friendly even with the security personnel, but Londoners are divided about the security operation.
Kohila Thilgaraj, a partner in a real estate company, was impressed.
“You can see the security has been well planned,” she said. “It’s friendly and well organized. It makes me feel safer.”
Steve Brindley, who runs a sports tuition website, said he agreed.
“In the current age, with the Olympic Games what they are, sadly they attract attention from those who want to disrupt as much as those who want to attend.” he said.
Some say the security operation is too much.
“The games should be about sport and fun, but the security is overwhelming. I almost wanted to turn back when I got to the entrance,” said Ms. Iriondo, referring to the airport-style scanners. “I know it’s for our safety, but it is over the top.”
Sports fans may be disappointed to learn that also on the list of banned items are whistles and vuvuzelas — the horns that made their noisy debut during the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.
However, organizers have made sure that visitors will be able to make some noise.
On arrival at the park, sports fans will be offered a Visa-sponsored cardboard poster folded into a fan shape that makes a loud quacking sound when slapped on a thigh or the back of a seat.
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