Anti-terrorism forces keep papal security tight

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Anti-terrorism forces keep papal security tight

When the Alitalia Airbus A330 carrying Pope Francis flew into the Korea Air Defense Identification Zone (KADIZ) at 9:45 a.m. on Thursday, two F-15K fighters from the Korea Air Force, on patrol above the Yellow Sea, officially began their emergency guard of the plane, known as Shepherd One.

The Master Control and Reporting Center in Osan, Gyeonggi, traced all aircraft and ground-air missiles in and around the Korean Peninsula, especially in North Korea, and communicated with the two F-15K fighters. The 7th U.S. Air Force also supported the escort by sending its U-2 reconnaissance aircrafts.

The Shepherd One, which departed on Wednesday from the Fiumicino Airport in Rome, and flew over Siberia, Mongolia and China, and concluded its 9,545-km (5,931-mile) flight when it landed at 10:15 a.m. at Seoul Airport in Seongnam, Gyeonggi. The military forces who monitored the aircraft were relieved of their duties following touchdown.

But for the military, the police, the National Intelligence Service (NIS) and the Presidential Security Service, this was only the beginning of anti-terror operations. The escort mission for the pontiff, which lasts 98 hours and 15 minutes, was code-named the Tiffani Project, named after the southern Italian coastal city of Tiffani.

Those participating in the operation expect it will be one of the most difficult, particularly because Pope Francis does not employ a bullet-proof car and often deviates from his pre-determined course to meet with the public.

The NIS also heightened from Wednesday an anti-terrorism alert for the area the pontiff is scheduled to visit to a Level 3 out of 4. The increase follows the elevation of the alert on Monday from a Level 1 to a Level 2.

Because President Park Geun-hye went to Seoul Airport on Thursday to greet the Bishop of Rome, airport security was tighter than ever, with the Air Force deploying armored vehicles and troops to the scene.

Concern continued to mount when the Pope visited the Blue House in the afternoon. Police forces were stationed along his route in central Seoul, and large screens displaying floor numbers were attached to tall buildings in the area in case of an emergency.

But the most critical event for the guard forces is the beatification Mass at 10 a.m. today in central Seoul, where large crowds are expected to gather and during which the pontiff will stand exposed for some time in an open area.

To ensure public safety, traffic around the area has been restricted, buses have been detoured and subway trains will not stop at City Hall, Gwanghwamun or Gyeongbokgung stations. Blockades as tall as 90 centimeters (2.9 feet) have been set up in the area to prevent crowds from getting too close to Pope Francis, and access to tall buildings in the vicinity, where guards and safety personnel are staying, is prohibited. Snipers equipped with telescopic sights will also be stationed along nearby rooftops, and the police are temporarily holding some 60,000 guns and rifles registered to civilians.

The Seoul Metropolitan Government and the Archdiocese of Seoul anticipate that about a million people will attend the beatification Mass. Eighty mobile restrooms have been set up and some buildings, such as the Sejong Center and City Hall, will keep their bathrooms open for visitors.

A three-stage air defense system has been implemented, with anti-aircraft guns on major peaks and skyscrapers, and armed military police have been dispatched to the bridges across the Han River to prevent any potential underwater terrorist activity.

“It’s like Code One [a reference to the president] changes to the Pope while he stays in Korea,” an official with the guard forces said.

The NIS, the country’s top anti-terror command, was issued a general mobilization order months ago when the pontiff’s visit to Korea was decided on March 10, and the agency made a list of 70 international terrorist groups and about 4,000 potential terrorists that could compromise security.

The agents also focused on blocking anti-Catholic groups and dangerous individuals from infiltrating the country after Pope Francis excommunicated Italian mafia members in June. Korea’s top spy agency is sharing terrorist information with outside bodies as well, including the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.

The NIS was even ordered to keep an eye out for wet tissues after it was hinted that international terrorist groups like al-Qaeda often soak them with flammable liquid to produce improvised explosive devices. Anti-terror elements within the agency have requested that other security authorities closely monitor wet tissues, smartphones and laptops at security checkpoints at event venues or airports.

In addition, the NIS is supporting guard and security operations at locations on the pontiff’s itinerary, including Daejeon World Cup Stadium, Haemi Martyrdom Shrine in Seosan, South Chungcheong, and a rehabilitation center in Kkottongnae, a community for the disabled, in Eumseong County, North Chungcheong.

The NIS analyzed the 13 attempts to harm pontiffs since the 1960s and is cooperating with the Presidential Security Service to prevent anything similar during Pope Francis’s visit.

“The National Intelligence Service is taking a key role in the guard operation by collecting terrorist information and cooperating with overseas agencies,” a government official said.

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