Herculean effort to protect Olympics from terror attack

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A multinational security operation designed to safeguard the next Olympic Games from attack by international terrorists got under way in Greece yesterday.

A multinational security operation designed to safeguard the next Olympic Games from attack by international terrorists got under way in Greece yesterday.

While Greece's new conservative government was sworn in, hundreds of international troops, including British and US commandos, took charge of secret operations spanning the southern island of Crete to the country' s Balkan borders and the ancient site of Olympia.

Codenamed "Shield of Hercules" the fortnight-long exercise is the main drill ahead of August's lighting of the flame and will give the first clear indication of whether Greece's decision to spend an unprecedented £500m on security at the Games is working. The budget is three times the figure spent at Sydney, the last Olympics held before the 11 September 2001 terror attacks.

Despite the spending, Greece has yet to convince people that visiting the Athens Games will be safe. More than half the respondents in a recent US poll said they would be staying at home to avoid becoming potential targets for terrorists.

With its thousands of miles of coastline, notoriously porous borders and chronic construction delays, Greece is a security planner's nightmare.

More than 1,500 Greek troops, police, firefighters and coastguards were joined by 400 overseas troops to test preparedness for a range of threats from truck bombings and ship hijacks to chemical or biological attacks.

Thousands of Greeks were expected to demonstrate outside the US embassy at the presence of foreign troops on Greek soil. Despite being an EU and Nato member Greece retains a strong anti-American sentiment. The protest is the latest indication of anti-capitalist and anti-Olympic sentiment after last month's fire-bomb attacks on two cars outside government ministries involved in Games preparation.

Security analysts said domestic threats to the Olympics were minimal after the conviction last year of 15 members of the November 17 urban guerrilla group. Diplomats close to security planning said the prospect of a truck bombing is the chief concern.

With less than five months to go, less than half the venues have been completed, transport and infrastructure is delayed and the set-piece stadium roof and marathon route are in serious doubt. At the same stage in Sydney all venues were completed and organisers were busy planting flowers.

Costas Karamanlis, the conservative Prime Minister, who swept to power in Sunday's elections was sufficiently concerned at delays to take personal charge of all Games preparations in an attempt to cut through the red tape that delayed works for years.

Mr Karamanlis has vowed not to extend the traditional Greek round of sackings that accompany a change of government to Olympic officials. But Costas Kartalis, the most high-profile socialist appointee on the Athens organising committee, is expected to resign tomorrow on the grounds that he cannot work with the conservatives.

The Greek premier has appointed George Voulgarakis, a former commando, to head the public order ministry, which overseee security operations. "The security of the country, especially in light of the Olympic Games, is an issue the new government gives great importance," said Mr Voulgarakis.

Delays on completing venues and transport projects threaten to compromise the installation of communications equipment upon which the safety of athletes and visitors depends.

Outgoing socialist officials at the public order ministry claim the eyes and ears of the security operation, a multimillion-pound military communications system called C4I, will not be ready. The C4I system works on the basis of thousands of signals from cameras and microphones to hi-tech sensors installed in every venue, vehicle and vantage point, all feeding back to one nerve centre.

An anonymous former ministry official quoted in the Greek press said the system will only be "85 per cent ready". But the claim was denied by the security contractor Science Applications International Corp (SAIC), which implemented C4I for the first time at the Salt Lake Winter Olympics in 2002. Relations between the former government and SAIC were strained by haggling over the terms of the contract that was signed eight months late and only after immense pressure from the International Olympic Committee.