The Pentagon stands ready to evacuate Americans from Sochi, Russia, during next month’s Winter Olympics if the need arises, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said.
“If we need to extract our citizens we’ll have appropriate arrangements with the Russians to do this,” Hagel said today at a Pentagon news conference.
As many as 10,000 Americans are expected to visit the Black Sea resort of Sochi for the games that begin Feb. 7, according to Obama administration officials, who today cited what they called an uptick in terrorist threats leading up to the Olympics.
Hagel said he offered “assistance in any way we can help” with security at the games during a recent conversation with his Russian counterpart Sergei Shoigu. “As of right now, Russians have not requested any specific assistance,” Hagel said. The U.S. has said it will station two naval vessels in the Black Sea during the games to respond to any emergency.
Russian authorities have sought to dispel concerns that security may be inadequate after Islamic extremists claimed responsibility for suicide bombings that killed 30 people last month in Volgograd, about 435 miles (700 kilometers) from Sochi. Russian President Vladimir Putin discussed Olympics security with U.S. President Barack Obama in a Jan. 21 phone call.
“We will do our best” to prevent a terrorist attack at the games, Putin told foreign and domestic reporters in Sochi in a Jan. 17 interview.
The U.S. State Department issued an updated travel alert tonight to American citizens planning to attend the Olympics, advising them of the potential threat of terrorist attacks on the games.
The alert, which replaced one issued Jan. 10, cited uncorroborated media reports about the possible presence of suicide bombers in Sochi and warned attendees to expect an enhanced security presence.
“There is no indication of a specific threat to U.S. institutions or citizens, but U.S. citizens should be aware of their personal surroundings and follow good security practices,” the State Department said in its alert.
The U.S. will have enough diplomatic security in Sochi to accompany all 230 American athletes to all sporting venues at all times, said one of four Obama administration officials who briefed reporters today on a conference call. They spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the security preparations.
In a sign of heightened sensitivity, U.S. athletes have been advised not to wear their uniforms or show their team colors outside of the official Olympic venues, the first official said.
Russia, as the host nation, remains primarily responsible for security concerns at the games, and the uptick in threat reports isn’t unusual for a major event such as the Olympics, said a second official.
The U.S. has staffed an operations center in Sochi with a clear chain of command to respond to any emergency, this official said.
While the officials declined to say how many U.S. security personnel will be on hand, they said it will be in keeping with force levels provided at past Olympic games in other countries.
Sochi, which lies west of the Caucasus Mountains, borders one of the most economically distressed regions of Russia, stretching from Chechnya to Dagestan.
A separatist movement in Chechnya grew into an Islamist insurgency that took its fight into neighboring provinces. The two suspects in the April 15 Boston Marathon bombing, in which three people were killed and more than 260 were injured, were ethnic Chechen brothers who once lived in Dagestan.
While Hagel said the U.S. will be able to extract U.S. citizens in an emergency, a third administration official said no specific evacuation plan has been developed for the Olympics.
Even though the Pentagon is doing planning and researching the military assets that could be used, evacuations of U.S. citizens are typically coordinated by the State Department and wouldn’t necessarily involve military aircraft, that official said.
Army General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has discussed with his Russian counterpart high-technology equipment that could be made available to detect homemade bombs, the third official said. No formal request for such equipment was made and none was offered, the official said.