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Portugal flexes its military muscle

June 09, 2004 14:35 IST

From radar-packed warplanes to police snipers guarding stadiums, Portugal is ready for Euro 2004 and whatever security nightmares it may bring.

The nation of 10 million people is prepared for rioting soccer fans and its worst-case scenario is an attack similar to the March train bombings that killed 191 over the border in Spain.

"We don't have outsized optimism that nothing is going to happen. Something is going to happen," Lieutenant-General Leonel Carvalho, who heads the security committee for Euro 2004, told Reuters.

"Our objective is that when this violence occurs ... it be contained with a low level of violence and rapidly resolved. This is our concern and our great challenge."

Leave has been cancelled for the 60,000 police, firefighters, emergency medical workers and coastguards deployed during the three-week European Championship.

The 16-team finals, spread over 10 stadiums and eight towns and cities, start on Saturday.

Fears of attacks by radicals have increased because of Portugal's support for the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.

A March poll showed 57 percent of Portuguese believed that there was a large or very large chance of a "terrorist attempt or attack by Al Qaeda" during the event.

MILITARY MUSCLE

Portugal is flexing its military muscle for the tournament, with naval vessels patrolling harbours and its hundreds of kilometres (miles) of coastline.

Air force F-16 fighters will be on permanent alert and NATO is lending an Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) surveillance plane to watch over Portugal's air space.

Police sharp-shooters will be stationed on rooftops overlooking stadiums, Carvalho said.

Haunted by rioting that exploded during the 2000 tournament in the Netherlands and Belgium, Portugal has given 12,000 police officers special training in crowd control and it has spent 16 million euros ($20 million) on new vehicles, body armour, gas masks and other equipment.

Although authorities contend all games hold risks, the biggest hooliganism threat come from fans from England, Germany and the Netherlands. Britain is barring more than 2,000 suspected hooligans from leaving the country ahead of Euro 2004.

To reduce tension, police plan a low-key, friendly approach to the 500,000 foreigners expected.

Any trouble is expected to be away from the heavily policed stadiums, in areas with bars and nightclubs where alcohol could combine with the heat to trigger violence.

Police view three first-round games as high risk -- France against England on Sunday, Germany v the Netherlands in Porto next Tuesday and Croatia v England on June 21 in Lisbon.

PAPERS, PLEASE

In an effort to trouble at bay, Portugal reimposed border controls on May 28 that require passports even for fans from European Union countries. Almost 200 people were turned away on the first day alone.

Police have also thrown cordons around training camps. Officers sealed off the road outside the Spanish team's hotel near Braga, about 310 km (190 miles) north of Lisbon, and are screening all visitors to the hotel.

Police and firefighters have repeatedly complained about lack of equipment and low pay, partly caused by a two-year partial pay freeze. Firefighters protested on Monday outside the residence of Prime Minister Jose Manuel Durao Barroso.

Union leaders say radios are so poor that officers often have to use their personal mobile phones for police calls.

Source:
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