NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Security forces have taken over Commonwealth Games venues and sites like luxury hotels and metro stations in New Delhi to ensure thousands of athletes from around the world are safe against possible attacks by militants.
The action, backed up by 100,000 police across the Indian capital, was undertaken as athletes were busy training for the October 3-14 multi-sports event, held every four years for mainly former British colonies.
India will use commandos, snipers and police to protect up to 8,000 athletes and officials staying at the Games Village.
“The guns are actually making me feel more comfortable,” said Lauren Mitchell, a gymnast competing for Australia.
MiG fighters and armed helicopters would be on standby for the Games and Mi-35 attack helicopters would be airborne during opening and closing ceremonies, the India Express daily said.
Mobile surface-to-air missiles and anti-aircraft guns have also been deployed.
India had hoped to use the Games to display its growing economic and political influence, rivalling neighbour China, which put on a spectacular 2008 Beijing Olympics.
But an attack on tourists by suspected militants, a dengue fever epidemic, some filthy apartments in the athletes’ village, and the collapse of a footbridge injuring 27 workers has forced India on the defensive.
The government has also promised to investigate reports of corruption in the awarding of lucrative contracts for the Games.
Venues are finally coming into place with all 71 teams of the Commonwealth due to be on site by Thursday. Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit expressed satisfaction while touring the village.
The estimated $6 billion spent on the Games and associated infrastructure included a new airport, a metro system and flyover highways as well as a clean-up of the city.
India, with its 1.2 billion population and growing middle class remains a top destination for foreign companies, keen to tap into economic growth despite red tape and corruption.
Several top athletes have pulled out of the Games because of security and health concerns, although some decided to skip the competition because of injury.
India says it has long been a target for Pakistani-based militants, mainly fighting against Indian rule in Kashmir, a Himalayan region. Homegrown militants have also carried out a series of bombings in recent years.
“For the Commonwealth Games we have taken adequate measures and foolproof security will be provided,” Interior Minister P. Chidambaram told a news conference.
In a positive sign for diplomacy, Foreign Minister S.M. Krishna invited his Pakistani counterpart to attend.
“Foreign Minister (Shah Mehmood) Qureshi is most welcome to witness some of the Games at least, and there again give us a chance... to continue the dialogue,” Krishna told NDTV news channel in comments aired on Wednesday.
The two sides are trying to improve ties that plummeted after the 2008 Mumbai attacks which killed 166 people and derailed a sluggish four-year-old peace process.
Indian states are also on high alert on the eve of a ruling over whether Hindus or Muslims own land around the Babri mosque in northern India, a controversy that led to the deaths of some 2,000 people in 1992.
Caster Semenya, the women’s 800 metres world champion, has withdrawn from the Games because of a back injury, South Africa’s Olympic body said, dealing the event another blow.
The 19-year-old, cleared to compete in July after gender tests had put her career on hold since she won the world title in August 2009, has suffered serious lower back pain and has been uncomfortable in her last few races.
Teams were practicing in the Games Village, which, despite criticism for poor hygiene in some apartments, has extensive training facilities. Competition venues have also been praised.
“Great venues out there, the cycling stadium, the amazing wrestling facility. I have never seen a wrestling facility like this. The gymnastics venue was also terrific,” said Steve Moneghetti, Chef-de-Mission for Australia.
High-profile athletes missing from the Games include world champion sprinter Usain Bolt, who said the event had come too late in the year, and Kenyan 800 metres world record holder David Rudisha, who blamed fatigue for his withdrawal.
Other athletes have pulled out, citing health concerns surrounding dirty accommodation, while some have withdrawn because of fears over security.
In a boost for the Games, Isle of Man cyclist Mark Cavendish, a Tour de France stage winner and one of the world’s best sprinters, said he would compete in the road race.
Additional reporting by Jasion Humphries in DURBAN and Ken Ferris in JOHANNESBURG; Writing by Paul de Bendern; editing by Alistair Scrutton and John O'Brien