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SA promises a safe SWC

2010-05-21 07:43

Johannesburg - Saddled with high crime, fear of terrorism and skeptics around the globe, South Africa promises it's ready to keep the peace through an exciting World Cup.

The country's security forces are backing up the pledge with an impressive show of hardware and muscle, and an even flashier display of rhetoric. But whether it'll be enough to calm tourists' fears and maintain order is a major question as the opening game approaches on June 11.

"Ours is a daunting task," police minister Nathi Mthethwa said recently. "But if we work together we shall succeed. Failure is not even part of our vocabulary."

Maybe, but the concern is real. And the capture in Iraq of Saudi citizen Abdullah Azam Saleh al-Qahtani, who told The Associated Press he was plotting an attack against the Dutch and Danish teams at the monthlong tournament, emphasized that security forces will be severely tested.

"Even the smallest, most insignificant target will work for terrorists because the world's attention is on South Africa," terrorism expert Anneli Botha at the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria said. "And al-Qaida know they have to stay relevant."

The country's top police officer, national commissioner Bheki Cele, said preparations had been given the "thumbs up" by international security agencies.

The security force includes 44 000 officers from the national South African Police Service (SAPS) who will be dedicated solely to the World Cup. An extra 10 000 personnel from metropolitan forces will boost the total force to 54 000.

"We won't be ready today and we won't be ready tomorrow, because we were ready yesterday," Cele said at a police show of force, where some of the $90m worth of new security equipment was paraded. The hardware included water cannons, helicopters, speed boats, jet skis, new high-performance police cars and heavy-duty emergency rescue vehicles.

"I can't begin to explain to you how detailed our plans are," South African police spokesperson Colonel Vishnu Naidoo said in an interview. "We have quite simply made provisions for any eventuality."

Countrywide police operations will be controlled from a single room, the National Joint Operation Center in Pretoria, just north of Johannesburg.

Naidoo, one of few officials authorized to speak on World Cup security plans, said officers would be "clearly visible" at air and sea ports, rail and bus stations, on roads between major cities and popular tourist destinations, and at the 10 World Cup stadiums, as well as team hotels and training camps.

Naidoo said match venues will be protected by concentric security perimeters that will get progressively tighter. There will be a traffic-free zone between 200 and 500 meters from each stadium and venues will be "locked down" at least 24 hours before match kickoff, according to Naidoo, with only essential staff allowed access.

Vehicles coming in will be heavily screened by explosives and forensic experts.

Security perimeters, with their heightened police presence, will extend out about 800 meters in inner-city venues such as Johannesburg's Ellis Park. They will go further for venues such as Rustenburg's Royal Bafokeng Stadium, in the less built-up North West province.

The tournament's local organizing committee is responsible for security inside stadiums with help from police, with the aim to create a festive and family mood for all spectators, though everyone will be closely watched.

Local organizing committee security manager Mlungisi Ncame said fans will be taken through a baggage search, a visual ticket check and then an electronic scanner where their ticket will be verified and their identity checked against the ticket.

Ncame said individual fans could be tracked as all venue seats are linked electronically to the stadium's main control room, the Venue Operational Center.

"What we want to do is know who is sitting at any particular seat," Ncame said.

The South African Air Force will protect a 25-kilometer (15-mile) space directly over stadiums. Unauthorized aircraft would be issued warnings before being "forced down" by air force fighter jets, according to SAPS' Naidoo, who didn't say what "forced down" entailed.

South Africa won't be alone, either, with international police body Interpol set to test its Major Events Support Team at the World Cup, the first time it has been mobilized.

Interpol secretary general Ronald Noble has said his organization will make the largest deployment of officers in its history and would be providing "key operational support on the ground."

Foreign experts are expected to help secure high-profile teams from the United States, England, Germany and France and provide specific knowledge as to the threats those nations may face.

South African police have said the U.S.-England match is a high threat game, but the AP has learned it's not the only game being closely watched. A police official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he's not authorized to speak publicly on such matters, said eight of the 64 World Cup games had been rated as a high threat.

That makes for a big job for security, and it gets bigger when you consider that - along with stadiums, hotels and team training centers -police have 61 public viewing areas, including the 10 official host city fan fests, to watch over. That doesn't include countless local bars and restaurants where fans are likely to gather.

And to top it all off, 43 heads of state could visit, possibly including US President Barack Obama.

Botha, the security expert, said she was concerned that a key counterterrorism tactic of setting up a public tip-off line had been missed by South Africa. "It's impossible for police to be everywhere," Botha said, pointing out that ordinary citizens are a crucial source of information - as proved by the recent failed car bombing in New York City's Times Square.

"Building a sense of community responsibility should have been done here years ago," Botha said. "This is my concern."

Naidoo said police will be up to it. They'll be strategically positioned on roads across South Africa and there will be constant patrols of the nation's highways and transport links. South Africa expects many fans to use new rail and bus systems to travel to matches, and Naidoo said emphasis would be placed on these.

Police patrols will be in cars, pickup trucks, on motorcycles and even on horseback. Mounted police are often used at football games in Europe for ease of passage through crowds. There also will be a special VIP security squad.

"We have prepared ourselves from the pettiest of criminal acts to the largest of crimes, terrorism included," police minister Mthethwa said. "Our agencies are not sleeping, they are working. We are on the ball."

Read more on: johannesburg south africa

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