US studying plans to rescue Americans if terrorists strike Sochi Olympics
Pentagon believes Russia's reluctance to allow foreign forces on its soil would seriously hamper any evacuation attempt
theguardian.com, Sunday 19 January 2014 19.02 EST
US military and intelligence officials have been studying contingency plans for evacuating Americans from the Winter Olympics in Sochi, south Russia, next month in the face of concerns about possible terror attacks by militants.
The officials believe there would be major obstacles to mounting a large-scale rescue effort as Russia has historically been reluctant to allow foreign military forces – especially those of the US – on Russian territory, according to a source familiar with Obama administration discussions.
The White House thinking was revealed as a video published on a Chechen extremist website on Sunday claimed to show two would-be suicide bombers warn of a "surprise package" for Russia and Olympic spectators in Sochi next month. The pair, dressed in ordinary clothing, said those attending the Games would not be safe while forces sent by President Vladimir Putin occupy the North Caucasus region. The US was reported by ABC News to be studying the video.
US officials say Russia unquestionably has primary responsibility for protecting everyone, including Americans, attending the Sochi Games, which start on 7 February.
"No matter what happens [the Russians] are not going to welcome with open arms" any intervention by outsiders, the source said.
US contingency planners have also apparently determined that there are few ways to prepare and potentially position supplies or forces for a possible Olympics rescue because of Sochi's location, the source said.
Sochi lies on the western edge of the Caucasus mountains on the Black Sea in southern Russia, and militants trying to carve out an Islamist state in the region have threatened to attack the Winter Olympic Games.
The US state department has warned Americans planning to attend the Games to be vigilant because of potential terrorist threats.
Owing to Sochi's location and the formidable security measures Russian authorities have put in place at the site, most US intelligence experts say any attacks during the Olympics are most likely to occur at places other than Sochi.
Putin, who has staked his political and personal prestige on the success of the Olympics, has ordered safety measures to be stepped up nationwide after 34 people were killed last month in bombings in Volgograd, another city in southern Russia. About 37,000 Russian personnel are providing security in the Sochi area.
Putin, in an interview with foreign journalists that aired on Sunday, said Russia would do "whatever it takes" to ensure the security of Olympic participants and guests.
Asked if he was concerned about militants striking other parts of Russia, Putin said through a translator, "We have adequate needs available to us through the federal security service, the nterior ministry, armed forces units that will be involved in providing security on the water and in the air."
But some US politicians complained on Sunday that the Russians were not telling US intelligence enough about threats from militant groups operating in the region. "We don't seem to be getting all of the information we need to protect our athletes in the games," Mike Rogers, Republican chairman of the US House of Representatives intelligence committee, told CNN.
"They're not giving us the full story about what are the threat streams, who do we need to worry about, are those groups – the terrorist groups who have had some success – are they still plotting?" Rogers said.
US House homeland security committee chairman Michael McCaul, currently in Moscow, told ABC that co-operation with the Russians on security "could be a lot better."
McCaul, also a Republican, said he would be meeting this week with the Russian government's "command and control of operations" in Sochi to assess the situation. "We have 15,000 Americans travelling to Sochi for the Olympics. And I want to do everything I can to make sure it's a safe and successful Olympics," McCaul said.
Michael Morell, former deputy CIA director, said that while there was a long history of co-operation between nations hosting an Olympics and the US intelligence community, "we did not get that co-operation with the Russians" for the Sochi Games.
"I think fundamentally they don't want to admit that they don't have complete control here and they might need some help," Morell told CBS.
One US senator said he did not think the Games would be safe enough for him or his relatives to attend. "I would not go. And I don't think I would send my family," Senator Angus King, an independent from Maine, told CNN.