Arrests, security fears dampen New Year spirit in Europe
PARIS/BRUSSELS – Shaken by a year of militant attacks, Europeans will ring in 2016 in subdued fashion on Friday, with soldiers on the streets of Paris, a heightened police presence at Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate, and silence across the vast cobbled emptiness of Moscow’s Red Square.
Bookended by deadly Islamist assaults on Paris, the departing year limped to a close with security forces on raised alert in many capitals and Belgian authorities announcing a series of terrorism-related arrests.
Prosecutors said police had seized a 10th suspect in Belgium in connection with the Nov. 13 Paris attacks that killed 130 and were claimed by Islamic State.
Six more were detained during house searches in Brussels in an investigation into a plot to carry out an attack in the city on New Year’s Eve. Two others were arrested earlier this week, prompting authorities to call off the city’s traditional Dec. 31 fireworks display, which last year drew a crowd of around 100,000.
“We couldn’t guarantee keeping control of everyone,” Mayor Yvan Mayeur said. “Operations are under way… it was felt best not to take any risk.”
In Russia, officials said the closure of Red Square, usually the focal point of celebrations, was to allow the filming of a New Year concert.
But that was denied by the television company concerned, prompting speculation that the real reason is fear of an attack. Russia began bombing Syrian rebel targets on Sept. 30 in support of its ally President Bashar al-Assad; a month later, a Russian plane was downed over Egypt, with the loss of 224 lives, in an attack claimed by Islamic State.
SHADOW OVER PARIS
Seven weeks after the latest attacks and a week before the first anniversary of the gunning-down of cartoonists and staff at satirical paper Charlie Hebdo, Paris is greeting the New Year in what Mayor Anne Hidalgo called “an atmosphere of sobriety and togetherness”.
The city has shortened a New Year video light show at the Arc de Triomphe at midnight, and canceled a firework display to keep down crowds. Soldiers are deployed at key tourist sites including Notre Dame cathedral, where tourist Mark Scarrott was visiting from Australia.
“We do feel safe. Obviously, New Year’s Eve will be a little bit different for this city. I don’t think we will be heading out into the main attractions, just because of the things that have happened,” he said.
Across Europe, the deadliest year of militant attacks since 2004 has compounded a mood of worry and uncertainty. Evidence that two of the Nov. 13 attackers had entered the continent under cover of a wave of Middle Eastern refugees has heightened anxieties over the migration crisis and emboldened right-wing nationalist parties across the European Union who want a halt to the influx.
On Dec. 26, Vienna police said a “friendly” intelligence service had warned European capitals of the possibility of a shooting or bomb attack before New Year, prompting police across the continent to increase security measures.
POLICING THE PARTYGOERS
Many Europeans will still be out to party, of course, but under a much tighter than usual security presence.
At the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, organizers expect more than one million people to gather to watch a fireworks display at midnight. Some 150 additional police officers will be deployed to secure the event, a police spokesman said, and no one will be allowed to bring in bags and backpacks.
Authorities in Madrid said they were fielding 15 percent more police and emergency staff than a year ago for year-end events, including the ‘Saint Silvester’ evening fun run through the Spanish capital.
About 3,000 police will be on duty across central London, with an increased number of firearms officers in and around major stations.
A spokesman for the Italian police force said there would be more than 30 percent more officers on duty across the country than a year ago, “not because it’s New Year but because of what happened on Nov. 13 in Paris”.
Security has been tightened for the customary open air concert at the Circus Maximus in Rome. In Milan, those attending the New Year concert in the square outside the Gothic cathedral will have to negotiate security corridors with barriers, checkpoints, police patrols and a ban on fireworks and glass bottles.
In the Turkish city of Istanbul, a bridge between the continents of Europe and Asia, police said they had ramped up the number of officers on the streets by around 10,000, thanks to staff working longer shifts.
“Normally I go out to the bars on the Asian side of Istanbul but this year, because of the danger of ISIS (Islamic State), I will spend New Year’s Eve in my home,” said Seyda Yilmaz, a 26-year old IT expert.
On Wednesday, Turkish police detained two suspected Islamic State members they believe to have been plotting New Year’s Eve suicide attacks in the capital Ankara, where less than three months ago a double suicide bombing killed more than 100 people.
The streets of Kizilay in central Ankara were still busy on Thursday afternoon despite the looming security threat and sub-zero temperatures. Selih, who works in one of the many bars dotting the area, said the latest arrests had alarmed people.
“It makes tonight harder, but these are natural risks. We’re expecting 500 people this evening. We think they will still come and we’ll have security on the door like usual,” he said.
But student Hande Balkis said many were choosing to stay away from the capital’s busier areas.
“Of course we’re scared,” she said. “Turkey is very complex at the moment and Ankara feels a bit dangerous.” –Reuters