Athens braces for the unknownATHENS, Greece ― Security here has gotten ever tighter as next month’s Olympic Games approach. At a stadium in the city of Maratona, starting point for the marathon, guards were lined up to block entry to the main gate, even by reporters. I was surrounded by four armed policemen as I parked my car about 10 meters from the gate.
Near the Port of Piraeus in Athens, a special terrorism task force was training ― a military operation involving naval intelligence and scout planes. Last week, streets surrounding the National Assembly building in Athens were temporarily closed off by police. An unaccounted-for briefcase had been reported on a city bus. It turned out to have been left behind inadvertently by a passenger.
There is a visible military presence in Athens. Training maneuvers are being conducted even in places where there’s not an Olympic flag to be seen. Most stadiums are closed to the public, as a last-minute press to install security systems is underway.
The Greek government appears confident. Minister of Public Order George Voulgarakis said recently that he would devote all possible resources to the safety of the two million foreigners expected to visit for the games, which run from Aug. 13 to 29. “We are doing everything we can,” he said. “None of the other Olympics could be safer than this one.”
The government has budgeted $1.2 billion for human resources and facilities to prevent terrorist attacks ― an Olympic record. More than $300 million has been spent on surveillance cameras in downtown Athens. Police will be able to monitor downtown from many angles, including an aerial view from a scout plane. All official trailers and buses have been equipped with a GPS-connected system that automatically stops the engine if the vehicle heads in a direction that hasn’t been pre-approved. More than 70,000 police, guards and security officials have been hired.
“There will be international networks,” Mr. Voulgarakis said. “NATO is providing an air force team. Countries including France, Britain, the United States, Germany, Israel and Australia have formed a special advisory committee to exchange information on possible terrorist attacks.”
Still, anxiety remains. U.S. FBI Director Robert Mueller, while crediting Greece for taking numerous steps to improve security in the past six months, said recently that there there were still “high-level concerns” about security. According to USA Today, Mr. Mueller said Greek security officials would not be able to handle a major bombing; he said FBI obervation reveals that substantial gaps in security remain.
Greece’s numerous islands, which are difficult to monitor and could be used as staging areas by Islamist terrorists, are one specific cause for concern. But an official from the Greek Foreign Ministry downplayed the possibility of terrorism. “Greece has never been a target of terrorist attack from Islamic nations,” the official said. “They’ve long been our friends.”
If you go, be sure to take precautions
Koreans planning to visit Athens during the Olympics would be well advised to take some precautions. Before leaving, the Korean government advises visitors to go to the Web site of the Korean Embassy in Greece ― www.mofat.go.kr/greece ― where they’ll find a list of places in Athens where Koreans should report in case of emergency.
The embassy has been preparing for possible terrorist attacks. Embassy officials caution visitors not to approach or touch objects that have been left unguarded in public places and to try to stay up to date by keeping up with local newspapers and T.V. The four Korean restaurants in downtown Athens might also be good places to get information.
Measures can be taken to avoid robberies and burglary. The nightlife in Athens is relatively safe, but there have been frequent reports of pocketpicking. There is speculation that theives might flock to Athens to target people visiting for the Olympics.
Experts advise not to leave bags unattended at hotels and restaurants or to accept drinks or food offered by strangers.
It’s also important to prepare yourself for the Greek heat, which can reach 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) in extreme cases. Hats are essential, and you should always keep bottled water handy, since the tap water in Athens isn’t recommended.
There is no need to get shots specifically for a trip to Greece, but visitors should bring basic medications with them.
Try to take advantage of subways and tramcars in the city. Some subway rides cost only 0.7 euro (85 cents), but if a rider fails to make the proper payment, the penalty is about 40 times the cost of a ticket. If you take a taxi, watch out for swindlers. On average, it costs about 30 euro to travel by cab from the airport to downtown Athens (with a tip of one or two euro). It’s best to arrange for a taxi through a hotel.
The numbers for the Korean Embassy in Greece are 210-698-4080 and 6944-187918.
Security chief: We’re fully prepared
Despite criticism that Athens is unprepared for the Olympics from a security standpoint, Regina Desfiniotou, who is in charge of security, expresses confidence.
“The guarding of the Olympic stadiums started as planned without any problems,” said Ms. Desfiniotou, a police major with Greece’s Ministry of Public Order. “We will try our best to assure the safety of all the guests, regardless of their nationality.”
Ms. Desfiniotou points to the unprecedented amount of money invested on the Olympics’ security and information system. “To stay informed about possible terrorism, we asked the United States, England, Israel and other countries for cooperation,” she said. “We haven’t received any information about plans of terror attack during the Olympics.
“U.S. media have made our security look weak by showing some of the incomplete preparation for the Olympics,” she said. “ If they try to report negative aspects of our security system without reasonable evidence, our government will correct the misunderstanding by providing the accurate information.”
The Athletes’ Village has security monitors and sensors on the walls, and guards are stationed outside. Olympic Lane will be guarded by unmanned airships and closed-circuit cameras, says Ms. Desfinitou, who personally attests to how much work has gone into security. “I haven’t had a holiday this year,” she said. “If my husband wasn’t a policeman, he would have divorced me.”
by Kim Jong-moon