India tightens security for Commonwealth Games

India tightens security for Commonwealth Games

NEW DELHI – Indian authorities have deployed nearly 100,000 police officers in the streets of New Delhi and put fighter jets on standby to help protect the largest international sporting event ever held here.

Though several athletes pulled out because of security concerns following a recent shooting at a tourist site, Indian officials said they are confident they could foil any plan to attack the Commonwealth Games or the capital.

“(We have) no concerns, no cause of panic. We have elaborate security arrangements and we are ready to meet any kind of eventuality,” New Delhi police spokesman Rajan Bhagat said Wednesday.

Those plans were complicated by a court verdict scheduled for Thursday in a 60-year-old Hindu-Muslim conflict that is one of the nation’s most combustible issues.

The conflict over a holy site in the city of Ayodhya has caused thousands of deaths over the years and the government has committed massive police resources to preventing a new outbreak of violence.

Home Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram said that would have no impact on protecting the Commonwealth Games, which begin Sunday with about 7,000 athletes from 71 countries and territories.

“I can assure you, notwithstanding the difficulties, we will provide foolproof security at the games venues and at the Games village,” he said.

While these Games have been troubled by behind-schedule preparations and complaints about the cleanliness of the athletes village, fears about security have also been a factor, with India a constant target for terrorists.

A November 2008 terrorist attack in Mumbai that killed 166 people and a February bombing at a popular cafe in the city of Pune that also killed 16 people heightened the concerns.

Sporting events have also been targeted, with a bomb blast at an Indian Premier League cricket match in April that wounded 14 and an attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team in neighbouring Pakistan last year giving many athletes pause about whether to attend these games.

After a pair of gunmen on a motorcycle shot and wounded two Taiwanese men outside one of India’s biggest mosques less than two weeks ago, several competitors withdrew. An Islamic militant group took responsibility for the shooting and threatened to attack the games. The gunmen have not been caught.

Australia issued a new travel warning Wednesday that “the Commonwealth Games will be held in a security environment where there is a high risk of terrorism.”

To allay fears, India has blanketed New Delhi with protection, setting up roadblocks and dispatching teams of soldiers with assault rifles throughout the capital. Officers on horseback patrolled the streets, while police kept watch over the athletes’ village from behind sandbagged barricades.

The security plan includes 100,000 police — some brought from more than 1,200 kilometres away — thousands of commandos, hundreds of explosives-sniffing dogs and more than a dozen bomb disposal squads. Closed-circuit cameras have been installed at venues, and snipers will be positioned at key locations, according to security officials.

The air force was using drone aircraft for surveillance and keeping fighter jets and helicopters with assault teams on standby, said Wing Cmdr. T.K. Singha, the Indian air force spokesman.

The government was also sending large, fierce langur monkeys to some of the venues to keep gangs of smaller, wilder monkeys away from athletes and spectators.

Diplomats say they are generally happy with security that is so tight that the British ambassador, on a visit to the athletes’ village, was forced to go through a metal detector and show his accreditation — an almost unheard of imposition on such a high-ranking official in status-conscious India.

“We see a very strong commitment on the part of the authorities to ensure a safe and secure games,” Australian Ambassador Peter Varghese said.

While there is no hard information of an imminent threat, the city is large and it’s impossible to protect every location, diplomats said.

“We continue to keep the security situation under close review together with the Indian authorities and other participating countries. We welcome the fact that the Indian authorities are visibly giving security the highest priority,” said a Delhi-based diplomat from one Commonwealth country, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to comment on security preparations.

Athletes said they were searched at great length when they entered the village and the venues but welcomed the intrusion.

“To me, it’s great. It’s what we want at every games,” England women’s field hockey captain Kate Walsh said. “It’s definitely reassuring. I’m sure for all the girls, it’s the same.”