Steel curtain for Soccer City

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JOHANNESBURG, June 7 – South Africa is to throw a ring of steel around Johannesburg's sparkling new Soccer City stadium to prevent terrorists, hooligans or petty criminals from spoiling Friday's World Cup kick-off.With around 50 murders a day, South Africa has a reputation as one of the world’s most dangerous countries and the build-up to the tournament has been dogged by talk of terror plots and hooligan fears.

Few football fans need reminding the start of the last major tournament on the continent, January’s African Cup of Nations in Angola, was overshadowed by a deadly attack on Togo’s team bus by separatists.

Around 40 heads of state and a host of VIPs will attend the opening ceremony and inaugural match between the hosts and Mexico at the 95,000-seat stadium.

So with the eyes of the world on South Africa, police are leaving nothing to chance.

Bomb squads, thousands of uniformed, plainclothes and mounted police officers will be patrolling both Soccer City and Cape Town’s Green Point arena where France take on Uruguay on Friday night.

While a mischievous South African Airlines pilot flew over the stadium in Johannesburg as a good luck gesture when the Springboks won the 1995 rugby World Cup, stadia have been declared no-fly zones and closed to traffic.

Ever since Israel’s Olympians were gunned down at the 1972 Munich Games, an attack by publicity-seeking extremists has been the ultimate nightmare scenario for major sporting events.

A group of far-right militants are currently facing trial over accusations they wanted to blow up black townships ahead of the tournament and Iraqi officials announced the arrest last month of a Saudi man accused of helping to plan an attack during the month-long event.

Dutch authorities meanwhile say they have received intelligence reports of a possible attack but Johan Berger, a security expert at South Africa’s Institute for Security Studies, said there was little to suggest games will be targeted.

"An event of this nature presents the potential of being targeted by terrorist groups … but we have no evidence that indicates the ceremony or the matches will be targeted," he told AFP.

The global policing agency, Interpol has bolstered its office in the country to help share intelligence both on militants and hooligans.

Countries with a history of hooliganism have sent officers to spot troublemakers.

"We have a group of police officials from 27 countries based here: they will work side by side with our police officals outside and insed the stadia," South African police spokeswoman Sally de Beer told AFP.

"They will obviously know their own hooligans and will be able to point them out and prevent them entering the stadium."

Argentina, which has a long record of fan violence, has handed South Africa a list of 800 hooligans. Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa revealed last week that a bid by banned British hooligans to enter via Dubai had been foiled.

The heavy police presence is also intended to deter would-be thieves and pickpockets.

Those who are arrested will be detained in holding cells underneath the stadia before being hauled before special fast-track courts.

Police are also responsible for crowd safety. Johannesburg’s Ellis Park stadium, scene of the country’s worst football tragedy when 43 people were crushed to death at a derby in 2001, is one of the 10 host venues.

While the police are in charge, the army is on standby if needed and the health service has been mobilised to deal with a possible chemical attack.

No one is saying crime will vanish overnnight but the headline figures mask the fact that the vast majority of violence is confined to shantytowns.

According to Berger, authorities deserve credit for their efforts to tackle South Africa’s reputation as a crime hotspot.

Aware that endless headlines about murders or muggings can spoil the party, the government has funded 60,000 additional police in the last seven years.

"The government and police have done their best in terms of what is humanly possible," said Berger.

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