Police unveil team to protect Olympic torch
LONDON (Reuters) - Attention seekers rather than the violent protesters who marred the torch relay four years ago will pose the biggest threat to this year's relay during its 70-day tour of Britain prior to the London Olympics, police said on Friday.
A team of about 70 police officers will be dedicated to protecting the Olympic torch and its bearers during a 12,800 kms tour of Britain, taking in the outer reaches of Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland as well as the Irish capital Dublin.
There were violent protests in major international cities, including London, during torch rallies for the 2008 Beijing Olympics over China's human rights record and foreign policies regarding Tibet.
Protesters hurled themselves into the path of the relay in London and campaigners tried to grab the torch or put out the flame with a fire extinguisher.
"I think the biggest threat will be attention seekers, somebody trying to run alongside and grab a bit of the glory," said Bob Broadhurst, the officer in charge of Olympic policing in London.
"I'm sure we'll get the odd protest every now and then up and down the country," he told reporters during a demonstration of how the police team would deal with variety of potential situations at a training centre in Hendon, north London.
About 30 specially trained but unarmed police officers, chosen after a rigorous selection process, will take turns to run alongside the torchbearers for as long as 12 hours a day.
"We can scale it up if we think the threat deserves it. We'll be as tough and robust as we need to be," said Broadhurst, adding the team were the "last resort" of defence for the torch.
Britain has witnessed a number of violent protests in the last few years as the government implements austerity measures to combat a large budget deficit, including four days of rioting last August, the worst public disorder in decades.
The threat from militant Islamists endures seven years after suicide bombers killed 52 people, while in Northern Ireland, armed groups opposed to a peace deal by the Irish Republican Army IRA.L continue to carry out attacks.
The British authorities do not believe the torch relay will face the same issues the Chinese had to deal with, but have nonetheless chosen a much lower profile route.
After having its flame ignited by the sun's rays at Ancient Olympia, the torch relay will begin in Britain at Land's End, the most southwesterly point of the country, on May 18
Each of the 8,000 bearers will carry an individual version of the gold-coloured aluminium torch, likened to a huge cheese grater because of its meshed appearance, and will cover an average of 300 metres (yards) each.
After travelling the country, taking in 1,018 villages along the way, it will return to the capital for the opening ceremony at the Olympic stadium in east London on July 27.
"Whilst we don't expect this to be a protest event ... it's right and proper that we are prepared," Security Minister James Brokenshire told Reuters after running with a torch himself during the practice exercise.
"We recognise during the course of the Games and also on the relay itself, the eyes of the country and of the world will be on us."
Anjem Choudary, a leading Islamist campaigner who has been involved in numerous high-profile demonstrations over the last decade, told Reuters the torch rallies could be a target.
"I think that's a possibility definitely," said Choudary, a senior member of the now banned group Muslims Against Crusades which burned two large poppies during a two-minute silence in London to mark Remembrance Day, the anniversary of the day the Armistice was signed marking the end of World War One.
"Any opportunity to pass on the message will be taken full advantage of," he said, adding that, while the Games themselves would not be a focal point, those attending could be.
"If there are foreign dignitaries for example from Israel or from some of the other countries where Muslims are being tortured...to do demonstrations against them and where they may be staying, I think that will be high on the agenda."
(Editing by John Mehaffey)
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