Sochi security touted after Boston bombs
MOSCOW – The naming of two Chechen brothers as the suspects in the deadly Boston Marathon bombing is reviving fears about security at the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, the resort town on the edge of Russia’s restive southern republics. But officials insist they are prepared to protect Olympic athletes and spectators.
If anything, experts said, the bombings could convince the United States to work more with Russia on security at the games, with the country motivated to lend a hand in hopes of ensuring security for its own citizens.
There is no demonstrable connection between the Chechen insurgency and the suspects in the Boston bombings, one of whom was killed in a shootout and the other the focus of an intense manhunt. But Russia has for years been trying to convince the world how big a threat it faces.
Even as regional leaders in Chechnya boast about successful efforts at eradicating the insurgency, it has spread into the rest of the Caucasus and brought terror to Moscow and other cities. Russian authorities have sometimes responded with tough measures that left dozens dead.
The Sochi Organizing Committee on Friday refused to comment on how the Boston attacks could affect preparations for the Games, though one official earlier this week promised “the safest in history.” Olympic officials expressed confidence Friday in Russian measures.
The Olympics are “the most secure place you can find,” said Gian Franco Kasper, president of the international ski federation FIS, and a member of the IOC’s coordination commission for Sochi.
“We always know how tight the security is in Russia now,” he said. “They are relatively nervous for the games, which is correct because of the surrounding countries.”
The Boston attacks might actually boost security at Sochi because the United States would now be more motivated to engage in Russia to ensure security for Americans, one expert said.
“The U.S. intelligence agencies would be more interested now in expanding cooperation, which has hardly existed until now,” said Andrei Soldatov, a Russian journalist and security expert.
U.S. Olympic Committee spokesman Patrick Sandusky told the AP that the committee “will work closely with the local organizing committee, our State Department and law enforcement agencies to ensure the proper security plan is in place.”
Chechen separatists have fought two full-scale wars with Russian forces, but despite President Vladimir Putin’s sanction of the violent rule of his chosen Chechen leader, he has been unable to stop the spread of the Islamic insurgency.
In 2002, Chechen suicide bombers and others seized a Moscow theater and some 850 hostages, a siege that ended with 129 hostages and all 41 hostage-takers dead when Russian forces staged a rescue raid after first filling the auditorium with a narcotic gas to knock out the militants.
Chechen insurgents also launched a 2004 hostage-taking raid in the southern Russian town of Beslan, a siege that ended in a bloodbath two days later, with more than 330 people, about half of them children, killed. A suicide bomber killed 37 people at Moscow’s busiest airport in 2011, prompting threats of revenge by Putin.
But officials say the security plan for Sochi meets international demands and that the system’s efficiency has been proven at test competitions.
Security precautions were high and visible to outsiders at international test events in Sochi in January and February. Some athletes were bemused by what they described as unprecedented security measures, including patrols of guards with assault rifles as well as incessant checks of credentials.
Kasper told the AP he was amazed by how tight the security was in Sochi during the test events.
“I joked that the only moment they didn’t inspect our athletes was during the race,” he said. “We can be relatively safe with all the controls. I am not worried about it.”
Russian security agents have been working in Sochi for years in preparation for the Games. Alexei Filatov, deputy head of the veterans’ association of the elite Alfa commando unit, said Russian special services are unlikely to be rattled by what happened in Boston since the suspects hadn’t lived there for years.
According to Filatov, intelligence officials have been shadowing “every person in every family” in the volatile region for years, singling out “suspicious characters” and tracking their every move in order to nip potential attacks in the bud.
“That Chechen ‘link’ that was discovered in the Boston bombings has nothing to do with the situation in Chechnya and Russia,” Fitalov said.
Despite the worries, military analyst Alexander Golts said he doubts the Boston bombings could hurt Sochi’s reputation significantly.
“I don’t think it will have a critical importance for the Sochi Olympics,” he said. “The condition of the ski jump there matters more.”
AP Sports Writers Stephen Wilson in London and Graham Dunbar in Geneva contributed to this report.