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Greece Mounting Unprecedented Security for Olympics - 2004-07-02

Greece is mobilizing its army, navy, coast guard and police forces this week in a huge security operation designed to prevent terrorist attacks on this summer's Olympic Games in Athens.

On the high seas outside Piraeus harbor, west of Athens, captain Elias Smyrnakis maneuvers the class three Coast Guard battle boat under his command.

On deck is an emplacement for a 50-millimeter heavy machine gun, and space for five Greek special forces commandos.

Only a few hundred meters away, on shore at the Olympic Hockey pitch, dozens of police and soldiers form a secure ring around the site.

This is part of the plan to protect next month's Olympic Games from terror attack, whether by land or by sea. The long-awaited security operation is designed to secure dozens of venues and hundreds of hotels involved in the games.

Roughly 11,000 police and soldiers moved into Athens this week, as the first contingent of a massive deployment of armed men and women around the country.

Their arrival is the beginning of the so-called "lock-down" of Olympic sites, during which each venue will comb for bombs well before the athletes and spectators arrive.

According to Greek Public Order Minister George Voulgarakis, thousands of security forces are involved.

"In the Olympic cities, we're going to have 70,000 people," he said. "Today, we've brought here in Athens 11,000 and gradually we're going to have more and more and more until the final number. In parallel, we have the implementation of the other measures, the security systems, the cameras, the patrols, all the other measures."

The deployment has been hampered by building delays, which continue to plague preparations for the Games.

The late completion of surveillance systems and perimeter fencing means some police are now just protecting open and easily accessible building sites. Some experts say delays could mean they would have less than 72 hours to check the main stadium for bombs before the August 13 opening ceremony.

At the main Olympic complex, home to the 75,000 seat main stadium, as well as the swimming center and velodrome, dozens of police officers and camouflaged soldiers collected at its gates as the mobilization got under way.

They watched uneasily as concrete mixers arrived every couple of minutes and raced unchecked into the venue. Next to one gate, an unprotected 100-meter gap, without fencing, led straight to the Olympic running track.

Mr. Voulgarakis said that it will take several more weeks to get up to full strength.

"For us, the Olympic games start today," he explained. "The security measures started to be implemented from today, not only for the personnel of the Hellenic police, but for all connected with this major effort. And, gradually, we implement the measures, until the middle of July, when we have the full implementation of the measures."

There have been international concerns that Greek security may not be able to defend the country's long coastline from a waterborne terror strike, like the October 2000 attack on the USS Cole in Yemen, which killed 17 and was blamed on al-Qaida.

But as the security plan began unfolding, VOA was allowed on board the patrol boat commanded by Coast Guard Captain Smyrnakis. It is one of a flotilla of highly armed and highly maneuverable patrol vessels assigned to protect Piraeus harbor.

Piraeus will be particularly sensitive during Athens 2004. Thousands of dignitaries and other VIPs will be living in so-called "floating hotels" in the harbor for the duration of the Games.

A special security agent on board the Coast Guard vessel, who gave only his first name, Costos, promised that no terrorist would reach them.

"If ships don't stop, and go into the red zone, we shall ask permission to fight," he said. "If necessary, we shall open fire."

The security is a vital part of the $1.2 billion program to ensure that all goes smoothly at the first Summer Olympic Games since the September 11, 2001 attacks on New York and Washington.