Torino Police Brace For Protests

Mounted police officers ride near the Olympic Medal Plaza, at rear, in Turin, Italy several days before the start of the Winter Olympics Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2006. Opening ceremonies for the Turin 2006 Winter Olympic Games are Friday, Feb. 10, 2006. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena)
AP Photo
Fast-changing events, including regional protests and the surge of rioting across the Muslim world, have complicated the task of protecting the Winter Games. The host city's police chief still believes security plans are flexible and thorough enough to avert serious problems.

"Our plan, which has been in preparation for many years, took into account the possible emergence of new problems," Rodolfo Poli said in an interview at his office Wednesday with The Associated Press.

"We're policemen, not altar boys," he added. "We always think more pessimistically than what happens in reality."

Poli, a veteran of Italy's long-running battle against domestic terrorist groups such as the Red Brigades, said authorities are bracing for attempts by leftist and anti-globalization protesters to stage attention-getting disruptions of the games as they get under way Friday. On Wednesday, for the second time in four days, torch bearers carrying the Olympic flame through northern towns were forced to change their route because of protests.

Poli also acknowledged that new security concerns had arisen because of the recent far-flung rioting by Muslims angered over cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad published in several European newspapers.

Asked if athletes from Denmark and other countries targeted by the riots would receive extra security, he replied rhetorically, "What would you do?"

Turin has a substantial Muslim community, estimated at about 10,000, that already has been the focus of security efforts, a local Moroccan-born imam was expelled from Italy in September on grounds that his hardline views represented a danger to public security.

Asked if the recent Muslim rioting in other countries had prompted even tighter monitoring of Turin's Muslims, Poli answered politely, "Let us do our job."

Denmark, where the controversial cartoons first appeared, is sending five athletes and five officials to the Turin Games. The team chief, Jesper Frigast Larsen, said Tuesday that the delegation has been in close contact with security forces and "so far they tell us we can act normally" and travel around Turin without any restrictions.

"There's always a list of some countries where security forces look a little closer. That is traditionally countries like Israel and USA and so on, and Denmark has been put on this list," he said. "It is not something that will mean a big change for us."

The vast multinational security plan for the Olympics includes coordination by Italy and foreign security agencies to monitor possible terrorist threats. So far, Poli said, authorities have not substantiated any links between outside terrorist groups and the activists who are planning a series of protests in Turin starting with a rally Thursday.

Protest organizers have a range of complaints, some are involved in promoting a global boycott against Coca-Cola, others oppose the proposed high-speed train route linking Turin to Lyon, France, via a tunnel through the Alps. More generally, protest organizers have denounced the Winter Games themselves, saying they will profit multinational corporations at the expense of Italian taxpayers while forcing Turin residents to endure "a militarized city."

Poli depicted the hard core of protesters as "relatively small but very loud," and expressed concern that they would stage disruptive actions in hopes of getting worldwide news coverage from the huge media contingent at the Olympics.

"When somebody wants to break the rules, all you need is some imagination, and these people have lots of imagination," Poli said. "If they want to try to block a competition, we'll try to prevent that."

The security operation in Turin involves some 10,000 police officers, reinforced by soldiers to protect Olympic venues. NATO is providing two AWACS surveillance planes to patrol over northern Italy during the games.