Israel deploys record number of troops on millennium night

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The Independent Online

Israel will deploy a record 12,000 police in Jerusalem on New Year's Eve to protect worshippers, Israel's police commissioner said on Tuesday. The move comes alongside growing worldwide concern that terrorists may try to disrupt millennium celebrations.

Israel will deploy a record 12,000 police in Jerusalem on New Year's Eve to protect worshippers, Israel's police commissioner said on Tuesday. The move comes alongside growing worldwide concern that terrorists may try to disrupt millennium celebrations.

Commissioner Yehuda Wilk said he has not received concrete warnings about possible terror attacks. "However, our working premise always is that the will to carry out attacks exists," he said.

He said the huge crowds expected in Jerusalem's walled Old City would pose a tremendous challenge to security forces. Hundreds of thousands of Muslim worshippers, as well as Christian pilgrims and observant Jews, are likely to crowd holy sites in Jerusalem on December 31.

Apprehension about security at millennium celebrations has been growing since the arrests of 14 suspected Islamic militants in Jordan and one in the United States over the past few days.

Jordanian authorities suspect that the 14 were sent by the Saudi millionaire Osama bin Laden, whom the United States government holds responsible for the 1998 explosions at the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.

U.S. authorities suspect that Algerian national Ahmed Ressin, whom they arrested as he arrived on a ferry from Canada with explosives and timing devices hidden in his car, was also sent by bin Laden and has accomplices who have not yet been caught.

Officials in Washington said both groups planned to attack American targets.

Two members of the ring arrested in Jordan are also at large, said a Jordanian official, speaking on condition of anonymity. Although Israel guards its border with Jordan carefully, people have in the past succeeded in crossing it illegally.

Apart from the threat from Islamic fundamentalists, Israeli officials dread the prospect of an attack on the Al Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem by Jewish or Christian extremists. The mosque is Islam's third holiest shrine and is also located on the site of the first and second Jewish Temples.

The area is a potential flashpoint of religious conflict and is by far the most sensitive spot in the Middle East.

Jewish extremists have plotted to blow up the mosque in the past in the hope of rebuilding of the temple, but were caught and received jail sentences. Some Christian sects have professed the belief that the rebuilding of the Jewish Temple will hasten the Second Coming of Jesus.

Two groups of Christian pilgrims have already been expelled by Israel, one being sent back to Europe, the other to the United States.

Wilk, the police commissioner, said he would deploy a record 12,000 officers in Jerusalem on New Year's Eve, which also marks the last Friday of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

Some 400,000 Muslims attended prayers at the Al Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem last Friday and the number could reach half a million on December 31.

Three thousand police officers will be deployed on and around the Al Aqsa compound alone. Video cameras have been installed in Jerusalem's walled Old City to ensure the safety of the thousands of Christian pilgrims expected to visit.

The combination of the end of Ramadan, the millennium and concerns about possible emergencies caused by the Y2K computer bug have forced the Israeli police to be ready for the worst possible scenarios, Wilk said.

In another development Tuesday, the Israeli Foreign Ministry said that Israeli police decided to remove their protection from foreign embassies in Israel, due to budget cuts.

The U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv sent a letter to the Israeli Foreign Ministry expressing concern and reminding Israel that U.S. police guard Israeli missions in Washington and New York, Foreign Ministry spokesman Aviv Shiron said.

"This has grave consequences for the security of our missions abroad," Shiron told The Associated Press.

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