Obama skipping Olympics eases security concerns

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VANCOUVER, British Columbia - (AP) — President Barack Obama's decision not to attend the Winter Olympics has eased some of the security concerns, although organizers still expect at least 40 foreign dignitaries needing special protection.

Assistant Commissioner Bud Mercer of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police said Wednesday that security will be ready for their arrival, along with the estimated 5,500 athletes and coaches, 11,000 media and 350,000 visitors expected to descend on Vancouver in the coming weeks.

"It would have made things more complex but we would have done it," Mercer said, when asked about Obama's decision not to attend.

Security is costing Canadians almost $609 million, four times the original estimate.

The opening ceremony isn't until Feb. 12, but already Vancouver is beginning to resemble an armed camp. Several streets are closed, helicopters patrol the skies and security perimeters have been established around 80 sport and non-sport venues.

Mercer said a 30-mile-radius restriction on aircraft has been established, centered around the athletes' villages in Vancouver and Whistler. Those restrictions will not affect operations at Vancouver International Airport, where athletes and officials will arrive at secured zones.

"The air space gets more restricted the closer you get to the center," Mercer said.

Mercer said 6,000 police officers from across Canada are in Vancouver, assisted by 4,800 private security officers tasked primarily with spectator screening at venues. The screening will be similiar to that done at airports.

Another 4,500 members of the Canadian armed forces are providing marine, Alpine and air security throughout the region, and Canadian Rear Admiral Tyrone Pile said NORAD forces are available should any emergency require U.S. participation.

"We have planned for a medium threat level," said Mercer, adding the threat remains low.

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That assurance comes despite the disappearance of 6,000 bags of ammonium nitrate, the same material used in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombings. Officials at the Kinder Morgan company claimed the ammonium nitrate was missing because of a "clerical" error and an investigation continues, but Mercer said he believes there is nothing criminal about the situation.

Mercer said the tight security will not be so intrusive as to deny protesters the right to lawful and peaceful demonstrations, which was the source of controversy and confusion for many during the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Mercer said safe assembly areas have been established within sight of venues as directed by the International Olympic Committee.

"If it's legal now, it will be legal during 2010," he said.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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