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Greece Boosts Olympic Security - 2004-08-06


Greece has deployed another 35,000 troops to protect the summer Olympic Games, with the whole country finally getting mobilized for next week's opening.

There are already some 70,000 soldiers and police deployed to protect the Athens Olympic Games, in what Greek authorities are calling the biggest peacetime effort ever made by the country's armed forces.

But in a decision made only nine days before the August 13 opening ceremony, the government decided on Wednesday to bring in another 35,000 troops, mostly for patrolling duties in Greece's less populated areas away from Athens.

It seems that every street corner in the Greek capital now has its own highly armed security agent. They are only the tip of the iceberg. On Wednesday, a navy minesweeper scoured Piraeus harbor for potential explosives. The harbor, used by thousands every day to escape to the Greek islands, will be home to VIPs living on luxury cruise liners during the Games. Chief among them is former U.S. President George Bush, who is leading the American delegation to Athens.

Despite the strict security measures, which are costing an estimated $1.5 billion, International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge insisted that the Games would still have a party atmosphere.

Mr. Rogge made his comments when he flew into Athens on Wednesday, declaring that everything was finally ready to the IOC's satisfaction. "I'm sure that Athens is ready. You know that the IOC has always expressed its confidence in its Greek friends. We knew that the promises of the organizing committee and also the government would be fulfilled. I'm very glad to say that that is the case, and that we are heading to a very successful games," he said.

But in Greece, where individual liberties are cherished, some are concerned that security measures are going too far. A new network of surveillance cameras has come under particular attack by some campaigners who have spray painted them to alert passers-by to their presence. A blimp equipped with super sensitive cameras that hovers over the capital has also left many uncomfortable.

This week, controversy erupted when Mexican television journalists filming around the Piraeus port were arrested by coast guard officers and, they allege, taken away and beaten up.

According to one of the reporters, Eduardo Salazar, who filed a law suit against the coast guard, the officers even threatened to kill the men. "They tell us that they were going to kill us and that we were going to suffer a lot," he said.

Despite the uneasiness over security, Athens is beginning to come alive with the Olympic spirit. So long in preparation, and so plagued by problems, the city is now waking up to the fact that it will host the greatest sporting event on the planet in just over a week's time.

Giant civil engineering projects, like roads and the public tramway system which will link the center of Athens to the coastal Olympic venues, have finally been completed. Banners hang from newly planted trees, and on the roads, a new orange line marks out a lane reserved for special Olympic traffic.

Transport difficulties have long been considered one of the great potential problems that might blight the Games in Athens, infamous for its traffic jams. But to general surprise, Athenians have respected the Olympic traffic restrictions, leaving key traffic arteries clear for athletes.

The excitement is building everywhere, and the Greek media are contributing by filling their schedules with Olympics-related shows and messages from politicians like the country's prime minister, Costas Karamanlis. "All together, we reached this point. All together, we will achieve our common goal: to organize extraordinary Olympic Games under the conditions of the maximum possible security," he said.

For Mr. Karamanlis, the Greek government, the Athens organizers, and a nation which has heard of little else for almost seven years, the waiting is almost over. The mood in Athens now is "roll on, August 13."

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