Terrorism threatens to cast shadow over Sochi Winter Olympics

Putin's pageant Sochi Olympics will take place under heavy security after Islamist attacks threaten toderail president's plans for winter showcase

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 01 January, 2014, 1:57am
UPDATED : Monday, 13 June, 2016, 12:45pm

Vladimir Putin's daring bid to host the Winter Olympics in the politically dicey Caucasus Mountains was his way of showing to the world that he had created a stylish, fun-loving country, a Russia that had defeated violent separatism once and for all.

It was a gutsy gamble - and the remaining separatists vowed to do whatever they could to disrupt the pageant. The potential costs of failure were driven home on Monday when an apparent suicide bomber shredded a crowded trolleybus in the city of Volgograd. That came on the heels of a bomb attack on the city's railroad station the day before. The two explosions killed 31 people and injured dozens more.

Security at the site of the Olympics is watertight, so Islamist extremists have vowed to bring violence to the Russian heartland. Volgograd, 650 kilometres from Sochi, and a city storied in Russian history, offers a tempting target.

Putin demanded a tightening of security on Monday amid fears that foreign guests in particular could be frightened away from the Winter Games, scheduled for February 7-23. The two bomb blasts effectively blunt his recent charm offensive, seemingly aimed at the West with the Olympics in mind, that saw the release of the oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, two of the Pussy Riot members and the crew of the Greenpeace ship Arctic Sunrise, held on criminal charges since late summer.

Although no groups claimed responsibility for the Volgograd attacks, officials said they believe they were related - and linked to an extremist group in Dagestan.

Russia has been engaged in an enduring and violent struggle with extremists since it defeated a separatist movement in Chechnya in the 1990s. After the war, a growing number of separatists turned radical, evolving into Islamist extremists who have launched sporadic terrorist attacks from Moscow to the hinterlands. They have also carried out a low-grade battle with authorities, now centred in the southern region of Dagestan, inflicting casualties among Russian forces more numerous than the US military suffers in Afghanistan.

Putin has staked his prestige on hosting a successful Winter Games in Sochi, and demonstrating in the process the safety of the resorts at the western end of the Caucasus mountain range.

The security agencies have been clamping down hard in Sochi, watching and calling in for questioning those who express unwelcome opinions, including environmental and human rights activists. Russia is spending US$2 billion on security there.

As the Vedomosti newspaper put it in a recent editorial: "The authorities want to clear the area around Sochi from any disgruntled elements that could compromise a positive image of the country as the host of the Olympic games. Nobody seems to care that the current unwillingness to maintain a dialogue with society may adversely affect the course of events after the Olympics."

International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach is fully confident Russian authorities will deliver a "safe and secure" Olympics in Sochi despite the two deadly suicide bombings in southern Russia that heightened concerns about the terrorist threat to the Games.

"I am certain that everything will be done to ensure the security of the athletes and all the participants of the Olympic Games," Bach said. "Sadly terrorism is a global disease but it must never be allowed to triumph."

The heavy protection for Sochi appears to have drawn resources away from security operations in other parts of this huge country. On Monday, Putin met with the head of Russia's Federal Security Service and directed him to prepare plans for heightened security nationwide.

The National Anti-Terrorist Committee announced on Monday that more than 4,000 security personnel will be involved in a huge security sweep in Volgograd. Volunteers were also being organised to patrol the sprawling city along the Volga River.

On Friday, three people were killed in an explosion in Pyatigorsk, in the foothills of the Caucasus mountains, located south of Volgograd and east of Sochi. A bomb had been hidden in a car parked on a busy road near the offices of the traffic police.


Security concerns

The chance that terrorism will spoil the Olympics has been a prime worry for security officials - especially given the publicity generated by last April's Boston Marathon bombings, carried out by two young men who were believed to be sympathetic to the Chechen separatist movement.

Doku Umarov, a Chechen rebel leader who authorities think is operating out of Dagestan and leading a movement to establish an Islamic emirate in southern Russia, called in July for resuming a campaign of terrorist attacks against civilian targets in Russia. He denounced the Sochi Games as a defilement of the sacred ground of the area's original inhabitants, the Circassians.

Umarov has taken responsibility for several terror attacks, including a bombing at Moscow's Domodedovo airport in January 2011 that killed 37 people. The United States has offered a reward of up to US$5 million for information about Umarov, US Ambassador Michael McFaul said on Twitter on Monday.

Rene Fasel, president of the international ice hockey federation and head of the umbrella group of winter Olympic sports bodies, said security in Sochi will be similar to Salt Lake City when it hosted the 2002 Winter Games just months after the September 11, 2001, terror attacks in the US.

"It will be very difficult for everybody. People will complain about security," Fasel said. "I'm sure the Russians will do everything possible, but that means we will have an unbelievable [tight] security control."

Fasel said the Olympics should not bow to the terror threats. "We have to be strong," he said. "We decided to go to Sochi and the only answer to these bombings and terrorist incidents is to go there."

Terrorism is a global disease but it must never be allowed to triumph

Sunday's bombing took place, according to officials, when a railroad inspector at a station entrance tried to stop a man who looked to be suspicious. The man detonated his explosives, killing 18, including the inspector. The Interfax news agency quoted an anonymous law enforcement official as saying that police believe the bomber was a native of the Mari El region of Russia, farther north along the Volga, and that he was a paramedic who had converted to radical Islam.

The bomber was tentatively identified as Pavel Pechyonkin, who worked for five years at an ambulance service in the mainly Muslim city of Kazan.

A video made by his parents earlier this year, and posted on YouTube, shows them pleading with him to return from Dagestan and renounce violence.

"Do all Muslims go around with weapons?" his father, Nikolai, said in the video. "You are the only one so stubborn. What harm have people done you? … You are going to kill children."

In a reply video, Pechyonkin said: "I have come here only to make Allah pleased with me, to earn heaven."

The attack on the trolleybus on Monday also appears to have been the work of a suicide bomber, officials said. The roof was blown off the bus, shattering windows in a building nearby. Investigators calculated that the bomber, whom they said was a male, was carrying about nine pounds of explosives. Fourteen people are confirmed dead.

"The city is full of fear," Yana Deyeva, a Volgograd resident, wrote in a blog, adding that rumours are spreading about possible attacks throughout the city. Many residents appeared reluctant to use public transportation.

Volgograd declared a period of mourning until Friday. The city was also the site of a suicide bombing on a bus in October that left six people dead.

Additional reporting by Associated Press