By Sergei L. Loiko
This post has been updated. See the note below for details.
12:50 PM PST, January 3, 2014
MOSCOW -- Russian President Vladimir Putin arrived Friday in Sochi, where he intends to inspect the venues for the upcoming Winter Olympics, his spokesman said.
“In the coming days, the president will examine in detail all the [five] venues of the mountain cluster and [six venues of] the coastal cluster,” press secretary Dmitry Peskov told the Itar-Tass news agency. “He will once again watch the preparation procedures for the opening and closing ceremonies of the Olympic and Paralympic Games whose rehearsals are taking place at the Fisht Stadium.”
Putin started his inspection by going down the alpine slope at Laura Stadium, designed to host cross-country skiing and biathlon events. The slope that he skied down several times with Premier Dmitry Medvedev will not be used for Olympic events, but it was designed to accommodate professional and amateur skiers.
Putin arrived in Sochi after visiting Volgograd, a Russian industrial center about 400 miles northeast of Sochi, which this week sustained two terrorist attacks that left 31 dead and scores injured.
First, a suicide bomber set off an explosive device at the entrance of a crowded railway station, and the next morning another suicide bomber hit a crowded trolley bus in the center of the city. No one has taken responsibility for the attacks.
Putin visited hospitals where the victims were being treated and laid flowers at the bombing sites.
“The heinousness of the crimes committed here in Volgograd doesn't require any additional comments,” Putin said Wednesday during a meeting with law enforcement officials in Volgograd. “Whatever the motives of the criminals, there is no justification for the crimes committed against civilian persons, especially against women and children.”
In late October, a Volgograd passenger bus was attacked by a female suicide bomber, an attack that killed eight and injured 37.
The three terrorist attacks evoked threats declared early in July by Russian North Caucasus Islamist resistance movement leader Doku Umarov, who is responsible for a number of terrorist attacks in Russia. Umarov swore in a video statement that his fighters will use "maximum force" to prevent the Olympics, which he called "satanic Games to be held on the bones of our ancestors.”
[Updated at 12:52 p.m. on Jan. 3: On Friday, the Moremoll trade center in downtown Sochi was evacuated by police who were looking for an explosive device; they did not find one, the independent TV Rain network reported.
"They kicked us all out,” one customer wrote on her Twitter account. “What the hell? We were watching a movie.”]
Oleg Rubezhansky, owner of a Sochi television station and editor of the local newspaper Mestnaya, said the city on Friday looked like a town under siege, with thousands of policemen brought from all over Russia patrolling deserted city streets.
“People are afraid to come out into the streets as they don't feel comfortable walking or driving somewhere in town and being stopped more than once, their papers checked and their cars searched as Putin and Medvedev enjoy skiing up in the hills,” Rubezhansky said in a phone interview. “All local medium- and low-level chiefs and bureaucrats were handed brooms and spades to send to the Olympic Village in the Imeretian Valley to join thousands of workers giving the place the last polishing strokes.”
Rubezhansky said food prices have risen in recent weeks because of seriously limited deliveries of goods and food products.
“All farmers' food and vegetable markets in and around Sochi were closed down in the last weeks of December, and many people couldn't for the first time buy a turkey or a duck for their New Year's dinner,” Rubezhansky said. “Fearing their life becoming unbearable during the [Olympic] Games, many people are planning to leave to stay with friends or relatives someplace else in the country until the Games are over.”
Rubezhansky said hundreds of palm trees were planted in recent weeks around Fisht Stadium, a 40,000-seat venue that will hold the opening and closing ceremonies of the Olympic and Paralympic Games.
All venues are ready and have been tested at least twice in top-ranking international competitions over the past two seasons, according to an official of the Olympic Organizing Committee.
“Everything is ready except the opening ceremony, the rehearsals for which will continue to the last day,” the official said Friday on condition of anonymity. “The contents of the opening ceremony is the closest guarded secret of the Games.”
Even though temperatures in Sochi fluctuated around 57 degrees, the Olympic slopes up in the mountains were reportedly covered with plenty of snow.
After skiing, Putin and Medvedev sat in the sun at a mountain cafe engaged in an informal talk over a glass of mulled wine.
Putin is expected to stay in Sochi through Sunday.
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