Updated: Thursday, 06 February 2014 11:47 | By Agence France-Presse

Putin says Russia ready for Olympic Games as concerns persist

Russian President Vladimir Putin declared the country "ready", two days ahead of the official opening of the Winter Games in Sochi on Friday, yet questions remained over Russia's suitability as a venue.

Putin says Russia ready for Olympic Games as concerns persist

A man walks next to the Olympic Cauldron on February 5, 2014, two days before the opening ceremony of the 2014 Sochi Winter Games - by Jonathan Nackstrand

As Russia paraded the Olympic torch through host city Sochi on Wednesday, concerns persisted over security and rights issues, particularly gay rights.

The US government warned American and foreign airlines Wednesday that terrorists could try to hide explosives in toothpaste tubes on Russia-bound flights.

An official told AFP it has information "specifically targeting flights to Russia", where the Winter Olympics will begin in the resort city of Sochi on Friday.

In a statement, the Department of Homeland Security said it was not aware of any specific threat but added "as always, our security apparatus includes a number of measures, both seen and unseen".

Security at the February 7-23 Games has been a major concern for Washington following two deadly December suicide attacks in the southern Russian city of Volgograd.

Adding to that unease is a stream of threats from Islamist militants in the volatile northern Caucasus region.

US warships arrive in Black Sea

Two US warships have arrived in the Black Sea and will stand ready to offer assistance in the case of a security emergency at the Sochi Olympic games, US officials said Wednesday.

Military officers said the vessels would be capable of providing a range of assistance, including potential evacuations of Americans or other foreign nationals, in the event of a possible terror attack at the games.

Tens of thousands of members of Russia's security forces are on duty to ward off the threat of attacks from militants from the nearby Northern Caucasus.

"This (security) is always a worry, not just at international events but at political ones too," admitted Putin, recalling the Boston marathon bombings carried out by Islamist militants from the troubled Caucasus region, which killed three and wounded 260.

Seven years after its successful bid stunned the world and paved the way for the hosting of the biggest event in Russia since the fall of the Soviet Union, organisers were making the finishing touches for the opening of the 22nd Winter Olympics.

Olympic flame carriers are set to include UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach as well as Russian stars such as pole vault champion Yelena Isinbayeva.

"Russia has worked towards this moment for seven years. It has been a national project," said Putin as he visited the Olympic village. "Russia is ready for the Olympic Games."

Putin said in an address to the Russian team that "we are really counting on you. We have a young, very promising team and I do not doubt that you will do everything to be successful."

Russia won only three gold medals at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver -- seen as a national debacle by most Russians -- but experts say it is unlikely to do much better on home soil.

The Games, with an estimated price tag of $50 billion, are the most expensive in history but also among the most controversial. 

International authors protest

Gay rights group All Out organised protests in 19 cities around the world -- including London and New York -- urging sponsors to "break their silence" on Russia's controversial legislation banning gay propaganda to minors.

On Thursday more than 200 leading international authors including Salman Rushdie, Margaret Atwood and Jonathan Franzen slammed Russia's anti-gay and blasphemy laws as a "chokehold" on creativity.

In an open letter published in Britain's Guardian newspaper, the writers said recent legislation outlawing religious insult and the "propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations" among minors, along with the recriminalisation of defamation, "specifically put writers at risk".

Rushdie told the Guardian that the campaign was "incredibly important to Russian writers, artists and citizens alike".

Meanwhile openly gay US tennis legend Billie Jean King withdrew from the US presidential delegation to the games, citing the ill-health of her mother.

However a White House spokesman said King's place would be taken by former US hockey star Caitlin Cahow, who is also openly gay.

The Games come against a backdrop of strained relations between Russia and the United States on various foreign policy issues, including Syria and US intelligence leaker Edward Snowden.

Environmental activists have also been critical of the ecological damage caused by the Games.

Courts in the Sochi region have this week jailed two activists from the anti-Games group Environmental Watch on North Caucasus (EWNC) for terms of 15 and five days on charges of petty offences.

The aim is "to intimidate the ecologist community who consider the holding of these Games to be a national shame", the EWNC said.

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