U.S. officials warned athletes and fans planning to attend next month’s Winter Olympics in Russia to be aware of recent terrorist threats, as the Pentagon said it’s prepared to evacuate Americans from the event if needed.
The State Department yesterday issued a revised travel alert for Russia, citing uncorroborated media reports about the possible presence of suicide bombers in the host city of Sochi. U.S. athletes have been advised not to wear their uniforms or show team colors outside Olympic venues, according to an Obama administration official who briefed reporters.
“There is no indication of a specific threat to U.S. institutions or citizens, but U.S. citizens should be aware of their personal surroundings and follow good security practices,” the department said in yesterday’s announcement, which updated a Jan. 10 alert.
The Olympics are set to begin Feb. 7 in Sochi amid concerns that terrorists may seek to mount an attack. As many as 10,000 Americans are expected to visit the Black Sea resort for the games, according to four Obama administration officials who briefed reporters yesterday on condition of anonymity and cited what they called a rise in terror threats.
Russian authorities have sought to dispel concerns that security may be inadequate after Islamic extremists claimed responsibility for suicide bombings that killed 30 people last month in Volgograd, about 435 miles (700 kilometers) from Sochi. Russian President Vladimir Putin discussed Olympics security with U.S. President Barack Obama in a Jan. 21 phone call.
“We will do our best” to prevent a terrorist attack at the games, Putin told foreign and domestic reporters in Sochi in a Jan. 17 interview.
U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said yesterday that he had offered U.S. help with security at the games in Sochi during a recent conversation with his Russian counterpart Sergei Shoigu.
“As of right now, Russians have not requested any specific assistance,” Hagel said during a Pentagon news conference. The U.S. has said it will station two naval vessels in the Black Sea during the games to respond to any emergency.
“If we need to extract our citizens, we’ll have appropriate arrangements with the Russians,” Hagel said.
The U.S. will have enough diplomatic security in Sochi to accompany all 230 American athletes to all sporting venues at all times, said one of the Obama administration officials who briefed reporters yesterday.
Russia, as the host nation, remains primarily responsible for security concerns at the games, and the increase in threat reports isn’t unusual for a major event such as the Olympics, said a second official.
Sochi, which lies west of the Caucasus Mountains, borders one of the most economically distressed regions of Russia, stretching from Chechnya to Dagestan.
A separatist movement in Chechnya grew into an Islamist insurgency that took its fight into neighboring provinces. The two suspects in the April 15 Boston Marathon bombing, in which three people were killed and more than 260 were injured, were ethnic Chechen brothers who once lived in Dagestan.
In yesterday’s alert, the State Department referred to unspecified reports about so-called black-widow suicide bombers in Sochi. The agency said the reports hadn’t been corroborated and that the U.S. government is seeking information. “Travelers to Sochi should expect increased police presence and enhanced security measures,” the department said in the alert. “U.S. citizens are urged to remain vigilant and exercise good judgment and discretion when using any form of public transportation.”
While the officials declined to say how many U.S. security personnel will be on hand, they said it will be in keeping with force levels provided at past Olympic games in other countries.
The U.S. has staffed an operations center in Sochi with a clear chain of command to respond to any emergency, one official said.
Even though Hagel said the U.S. will be able to extract U.S. citizens in an emergency, a third administration official said no specific evacuation plan has been developed for the Olympics.
While the Pentagon is doing planning and researching the military assets that could be used, evacuations of U.S. citizens are typically coordinated by the State Department and wouldn’t necessarily involve military aircraft, that official said.
Army General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has discussed with his Russian counterpart high- technology equipment that could be made available to detect homemade bombs, the third official said. No formal request for such equipment was made and none was offered, the official said.
–Editors: Michael Shepard, Robin Meszoly
To contact the reporters on this story: Gopal Ratnam in Washington at [email protected]; David Lerman in Washington at [email protected]
To contact the editor responsible for this story: John Walcott at [email protected]