US concerned about threats to Sochi Olympics, offers help

America offers security assistance after two suicide bombings in the Russian city of Volgograd ahead of February's Winter Olympics in Sochi

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 31 December, 2013, 10:02am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 31 December, 2013, 10:02am

The US government is concerned Islamist militants may be preparing attacks aimed at disrupting February’s Winter Olympic games in Sochi and is offering closer co-operation on security with Russia despite strains earlier this year.

Two bombings in the Russian city of Volgograd in the past few days – one at the city’s central railway station and another on a bus – killed dozens of people and have raised anxieties about the safety of the Olympics.

One militant group issued explicit direct threats to disrupt the Olympics, a State Department official said. Other officials said that regions near Sochi were among the areas of Russia currently most prone to Islamic militancy and other unrest.

“There are clearly sensitivities in our relationship with Moscow but enhancing Olympic security and counterterrorism efforts more broadly are areas of clear mutual interest,” one US official said.

“The Volgograd bombings underscore the threat and the need to work hand in hand with Russia in order to ensure the protection of US citizens participating in and attending the games in Sochi,” the official said.

US security officials said the government was not surprised by the Volgograd bombings and had anticipated that such attacks might well occur in the run-up to the games.

The officials said US and Russian authorities have engaged in extensive contacts regarding security preparations for the Olympics. The United States is expected to share with Russia information it might collect about possible threats to the games.

“We’re taking lots of security precautions” related to the Winter Games, a US State Department official said on Monday.

National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden condemned the Volgograd attacks, which were blamed on suicide bombers.

She said the US government had “offered our full support to the Russian government in security preparations for the Sochi Olympic Games, and we would welcome the opportunity for closer co-operation for the safety of the athletes, spectators, and other participants.”

The State Department is expected to caution US travellers on Monday about possible bombings and hostage takings in Russia, particularly in the North Caucasus region, which is less than 160 kilometres from Sochi.

The US offer for closer co-operation with Russia follows two issues earlier this year that raised tensions between US and Russian security agencies: the involvement of two Chechen brothers in the Boston Marathon bombing and Russia’s granting temporary asylum to former US National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden.

Nonetheless, in November, Matthew Olsen, director of the government’s US National Counter-terrorism Centre, said his agency was “co-ordinating and integrating the intelligence community’s support ... to the Winter Olympics in Sochi.”

Olsen told a Senate committee he had visited Sochi a few days earlier and met Russian intelligence and security officials to discuss the games.