French authorities on high alert ahead of Euro 2016
PARIS >> With Europe on high alert, French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said on Tuesday that the deadly explosions in Brussels are a reminder that a "very high security level" will be required during this year's European Championship in France.
Speaking hours after three explosions killed dozens in the Belgian capital, Cazeneuve said that everything will be put in place to guarantee "collective security" at the June 10-July 10 tournament, with the mobilization of specially trained emergency staff, police forces and firefighters.
In the wake of the Paris attacks that left 130 people dead in November, France remains in a state of emergency which was recently extended to May 26, two weeks before the opening game. Tournament organizers had strengthened security measures and made changes to the particularly vulnerable fan zones well before the events in Brussels.
Fan zones are typically set up in squares or parks near the center of the city, allowing supporters to watch a game on a big screen. Security can be lighter than at stadiums.
About seven million supporters visited the fan zones in the host cities during Euro 2012 in Ukraine and Poland, and there are concerns the designated Euro 2016 areas for the public could be targets for attackers. Each fan zone can hold 10,000 to 100,000 people and French authorities want to maintain a festive atmosphere within those areas while protecting crowds.
Cazeneuve said Euro 2016 should bring "sportsmanship, festivities and security for teams, accompanying staff and spectators."
Speaking later Tuesday, French Football Federation president Noel Le Graet maintained the tournament will go ahead in complete safety because "the measures put in place are very thorough" and "specialists of a very, very high level" will be employed.
French authorities last week used an open-air screening of a match to simulate a chemical attack that would be more devastating than the explosions near the Stade de France on Nov. 13, when suicide bombers blew themselves up outside the stadium while France was playing a friendly match against Germany.
After the simulation exercise, Cazeneuve said more training has been planned ahead of Euro 2016.
Although France's rugby team has played three matches there in the Six Nations Championship since then, the football team returns for the first time next Tuesday night, when it hosts Russia.
Le Graet said that the match will be "completely safe," while France players Laurent Koscielny and Antoine Griezmann both said it should go ahead.
"No, I am not worried about our safety, the federation has put security measures in place. We are serene," Koscielny said Tuesday at France's training camp. "Whether it's the French state or in Europe, everyone's taken exceptional security measures for the games in March and at the Euro."
Koscielny hopes Friday's match away to Netherlands and the game against Russia can help lift spirits.
"We have a game to play on Friday and we have to. Life continues, even though it's difficult given what happened in Belgium and France," he said. "We must try to give pleasure to the fans and to those watching on television. That's the only thing we can do."
Griezmann, whose sister escaped uninjured from the attack on the Bataclan nightclub in Paris on Nov. 13, was shaken by the attacks in Belgium.
"When I found out this morning it made me think a bit about things that I'm trying to forget. All our wishes and support are with the victims and their families," Griezmann said. "But in terms of the match, we have total faith in the security."
According to senior officials handling Euro security, explosives sweeps of all fan zones will be done when they open each day, with systematic pat downs and the possibility of metal detectors being installed at entrances. Fans carrying large bags won't be allowed inside and the areas will be placed under video surveillance. Cazeneuve said the state will contribute up to 2 million euros ($1.1 million) for video surveillance in the fan zones.
Organizers announced last month that about 10,000 people had been privately hired for security, among them 900 agents mobilized for each of the 51 matches. Tournament organizers are in charge of security within stadiums, with French authorities dealing with it outside, meaning the privately-hired security officers handling entrances and interior of fan zones will not be armed.
Organizers are looking to hire more people for security but are confident they will have enough trained by June. France's agency for job seekers has identified 10,500 people currently on unemployment lists who have the proper background and experience to work as fan zone guards.
In addition to the risk of extremist-led attacks, organizers also need to deal with the high possibility of hooliganism. French authorities have been working with spotters from the qualified nations in order to identify potential hooligans. Five matches from the qualifying round are treated as high risk: England vs. Russia, Turkey vs. Croatia, England vs. Wales, Germany vs. Poland and Ukraine vs. Poland.
England's game against Russia — which has been dealing with serious hooliganism problems in recent years — will be played in Marseille, where English and Tunisian fans clashed during the 1998 World Cup.
Associated Press writers Angela Charlton and Jerome Pugmire contributed to this report
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