Thu, Jun 08, 2006 - Page 9 News List

Locking down Germany for the World Cup

DPA , BERLIN

With the start of the World Cup just days away, Germany is gripped by a wave of optimism about the economic windfall resulting from the tournament and the prospects of the nation showcasing itself on the global stage.

After a protracted period of stagnation, Germany had hoped the year's biggest sporting event would help underpin the economic upswing that is taking shape, with both business and consumer confidence having climbed in the run-up to the competition.

But as the countdown to tomorrow's opening match gains momentum, the rapidly growing security risks are threatening to turn the championships into a logistics and policing nightmare.

At the same time, economists have downgraded their expectations of the economic benefits expected to flow from the tournament. A year ago there was talk of the World Cup adding almost 1 percent to growth. Now the most optimistic forecast is a meagre 0.25 percent.

"The World Cup is no wonder drug that can make everything better," said David Milleker, economist with Germany's Dresdner Bank.

Having geared up to cash in on the political goodwill surrounding the championships, the problem for Chancellor Angela Merkel's government is that the World Cup seems to form a major part of its stimulus plans for the economy this year.

But it is the security issue that is causing the greatest worry. Fears of potential terrorist attacks, violence by hooligans and disruptions by rightwing extremists have prompted authorities to assign about 150,000 police and up to 7,000 soldiers to guard the tournament.

Public buildings in some cities, such as school gymnasiums, have been prepared for a speedy conversion into vast emergency medical centers in the event of horrific major incidents.

Up to 2,900 police have alone been designated to guard the US team's 23 players with the area surrounding their Hamburg hotel partially sealed off.

As the authorities move to put into action their World Cup security plans, German television showed film footage of groups of neo-Nazis allegedly in training for combat during the event.

Following a recent spate of xenophobic incidents in the capital and surrounding areas, a Berlin-based African group published a list of no-go areas where the threat of racist attack is high.

"There are small and medium-sized towns ... where I would not advise anyone with a different skin color to go," said a former government spokesman, Uwe-Karsten Heye. "There is a chance they might not get out alive."

There have also been indications that national neo-Nazi movements in western Europe have buried their differences and are gearing up to try to turn the World Cup into a battleground to settle scores with right-wing extremists from Central and Eastern Europe.

Of particular worry to German authorities are neo-Nazis from Poland, who appear to have largely escaped the close monitoring by police and officials that occurs in other parts of Europe.

As a late attempt to clamp down on their movements, police from Germany and Poland have mounted joint exercises which have included practice runs in hauling potential troublemakers off buses as they pass through border points.

Adding to the security problems could be a surprise visit by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose anti-Israel and Holocaust remarks have won him a band of new supporters, especially among members of Germany's small but potentially violent neo-Nazi movement.

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