Updated: Friday, 24 January 2014 05:19 | By Agence France-Presse

Sochi locks down for high-security Games

Police stand guard on every corner of Sochi's steep streets rising high into the Caucasus mountains as the city prepares to host the Olympic Games amid an unprecedented security crackdown.


Sochi locks down for high-security Games

A picture taken on January 18, 2014, shows people walking past an information banner with the photos of police wanted suspected terrorists in a department store in the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi - by Nina Zotina

Police officers, whose numbers will climb to around 37,000 during the games that run from February 7 to 23, are already highly visible in the Black Sea resort city of around 350,000 residents, amid fears of possible attacks.

Such fears were magnified by two suicide bombings that killed 34 in December last year in a rail station and a trolleybus in the southern city of Volgograd, 700 kilometres (435 miles) from Sochi.

Law enforcement officers have been deployed along a route of around 50 kilometres (31 miles) linking the lower Olympic venues close to the seashore and the airport with those in the mountains at Krasnaya Polyana, which is reached by a specially built railway.

Close to the airport is a brand-new rail station, a massive gleaming glass structure. Travellers go through the first security check at the entrance. Then inside, there are tougher checks with passengers asked to switch on all their electronic devices -- smart phones, tablets and computers -- in front of police.

'It's too harsh'

"It's too harsh, but everything has to go right," during the games, said Igor Mitrofanov, a Sochi resident.

Carrying a professional camera can lead to difficulties even when the photographer has the necessary accreditation, an AFP journalist found.

A police officer who spoke no English asked a non-Russian-speaking journalist for his "permit to carry a camera." Finally, a young English-speaking officer intervened, explaining to his boss that media accreditation included the right to carry a camera. 

The young officer apologised quietly: "My boss didn't understand that you are a journalist." 

During several dozen security checks over three days, two AFP journalists with video equipment faced repeated questions but encountered only two police officers who spoke English. 

At times, the volunteers recruited to help visitors were able to help, but they were not always on hand.

Around 13,000 journalists from across the world are accredited for the Olympics, with tens of thousands of foreigners expected to arrive in the city.

Security is a major issue for these games held just a few hundred kilometres from Russia's unstable North Caucasus region where security forces are battling an Islamist insurgency. 

The leader of the insurgency, Doku Umarov, in July 2013 called for militants to use "any means possible" to prevent the holding of the games, which President Vladimir Putin wants to use as a showcase for Russia.

'There are police everywhere'

In the mountain zone of the games, the security is equally stringent. To reach the Krasnaya Polyana ski lifts, a skier or ordinary visitor must go through draconian security checks that are the same as at the airport train station. Police stand at the foot of all the ski lifts into the mountains.

The trains travelling to the Olympic venues are also patrolled non-stop by police and railway security staff.

On the entry roads into Sochi, there are police roadblocks that resemble border checkpoints. Vehicle access from outside the city is banned to those without a special permit until the end of March following the Paralympic Games, which run from March 7 to 16.

"I have already been checked many times on this route. There are police everywhere," said Mitrofanov, adding that he had to show papers certifying that his vehicle was registered in Sochi, where he lives.

After heightened security measures came into force on January 7, a mesh fence four metres in height was set up around the central rail station. The only access is through a temporary building where travellers are checked from head to foot.

"Personally, it doesn't bother me, it reassures me. It is better to have too much than not enough," said Yulia Rushopkina from Sochi, giving a view of the tough new security rules that seemed to be shared by many residents.

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