Armed guards for high-risk Britons

Mr Security puts himself in firing line to prove a point

The man responsible for keeping the world's athletes out of harm's way at the Olympic Games is there to be shot at. Quite literally.

Last week George Voulgarakis, Greece's new Minister for Public Order, who has been brought in to mastermind the billion-dollar security operation, volunteered to be taken hostage in a mock-up terrorist raid in which live ammunition was used. The "terrorists" may have been cardboard cut-outs but Voulgarakis sat motionless, bullets zapping into the wall behind him as Greek militia mounted a rescue operation.

It was, he said later an "interesting" experience. But the 43-year-old minister, himself something of a Rambo figure as a former Greek navy "seal" - a top commando in their SBS forces - explained that he wanted to show the world in general, and the Americans in particular, the protective measures being taken by the host country when the Games begin in August.

The exercise, one of several being conducted before Athens 2004, was filmed by NBC and shown on prime- time television in the United States, where there have been suggestions, fuelled by the former Olympic swimming star Mark Spitz but vigorously denied by the US Olympic Committee, that the US team could pull out of the Games.

"I wanted to demonstrate that I have every confidence in our sharpshooters, and indeed the whole security programme, which is being orchestrated in conjunction with several other other nations, including Britain," said Voulgarakis.

Today he flies to Washington to reinforce this message and reassure the US Government, the CIA and the FBI that everything possible is being done to make Athens safe.

According to a government spokesman, Eleftherios Ikon-omou, a police colonel, this will be "the biggest security operation in the history of the world". Later this month Voulgarakis will have similar meetings in London with the Home Secretary, David Blunkett, and Scotland Yard terrorism experts, including David Veness, the head of special operations who leads the seven-nation advisory group and says he is "enormously impressed" with Greece's security arrangements. A special force of between 70,000 and 80,000 will be deployed during the Games. All police and military leave will be cancelled from 1 July.

The Greeks have been stung more by stories that some nations are considering withdrawing teams because of security worries than by criticism of delays in the construction of facilities, which now seems to be back on target. This clearly was one of the reasons why Voulgarakis opted to become a latter-day William Tell.

It was also apparent that Greece's two-month-old New Democracy government needed a strong security figurehead. Voulgarakis is certainly that. He saw action as an explosives expert and frogman during his service with the SBS. A 6ft 3in tennis-playing Anglophile, he has the physique of a heavyweight boxer. He also has a PhD in economics, and indeed has been required to do his sums.

After the Madrid bombings, the Olympic security bill soared. "It was already huge but now we have to do things we probably cannot afford," he said. "We have a situation that is a gamble and one we must win. By the time the Games begin, security costs will have exceeded a billion euros [£670m], three times more than Sydney and Salt Lake City. Every time I open my mouth to suggest something it means more money.

"The government have to be a cash machine. But it has to be. We have spent this money because we want to embody all the modern technology we can ever imagine."

This will include measures to deal with nuclear and chemical attacks. Some 1,400 surveillance cameras linked to computers and telephones will be stationed at all ports of entry and every Olympic site. These will immediately detect any known miscreants - from terrorists to drug dealers - whose images will be flashed back to a database. Calls will then be made to the nearest police officer to move in and apprehend the suspect.

"We want everyone who comes here to feel secure and comfortable and to make sure these are a happy and memorable Games," Voulgarakis said. "All our preparations have been made in conjunction with Nato, because we want to ensure we have a 100 per cent protective umbrella. We have exchanged information and ideas with 22 countries. Tell us what more we can do and we will do it."

What has been done is to put the 202 competing nations into three risk categories - high, medium and low. Although no one will confirm it, Britain is clearly in the first category, together with the US and Israel, because of the situation in the Middle East.

Consequently all members of the 300-plus British team will be given round-the-clock protection inside and outside the Olympic Village - where the IOC president, Jacques Rogge, will also be staying - with armed troops on the team coaches, which will be escorted by armoured vehicles when they travel to Olympic venues. Helicopters will constantly hover overhead.

Athletes will be accompanied by armed guards even on shopping expeditions - or if they go for a moussaka in the Plaka. "Every kind of movement, official or unofficial, will have our protection," the minister promised. All of which, says the BOA chairman, Craig Reedie, "is news to us". But no team will be allowed to bring their own armed security personnel with them. "Let them ask, but the answer will be no," said Voulgarakis. "We cannot have a situation where you have private security forces walking around with guns under their armpits. They could end up shooting each other."

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