September 28, 2010 / 12:03 PM / 9 years ago

Commonwealth Games athletes arrive; new security threat looms

NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Hundreds of athletes arrived in New Delhi for the Commonwealth Games on Tuesday as India scrambled to ensure a court ruling due this week over ownership of a disputed religious site did not spark Hindu-Muslim violence.

An artisan paints a model of the mascot of the Commonwealth Games inside a factory at Mohali in Punjab September 28, 2010. REUTERS/Ajay Verma

The Interior Ministry issued a security advisory for all states to go on high alert ahead of the ruling on Sept. 30, television channels reported, with fears the high-profile Commonwealth Games could magnify any instances of violence.

Several top athletes have pulled out of the Commonwealth Games, an event held every four years for mainly former British colonies, because of health and security concerns.

The government is also reeling from complaints of shoddy construction and dirty accommodation in the $6-billion Games, more expensive that the South Africa FIFA World Cup.

    (For a slideshow: Countdown to Commonwealth, click here)

Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit again extended on Tuesday the deadline to ready the Games Village, which was due to be finished last week to house athletes and team members.

“We are all going to finish everything by tomorrow or the day after,” Dikshit told reporters.

An attack on foreign tourists by suspected militants a week ago outside Delhi’s main mosque rattled athletes and organisers.

England and Canadian team officials told Reuters they had advised their athletes not to go outside the Games Village, where some 8,000 athletes and team members will stay during the Oct. 3-14 multi-sports event.

Security has been beefed up across Delhi, with commandos placed outside key locations, including luxury hotels.

Delhi’s Supreme Court on Tuesday cleared the way for a lower court to decide on the ownership of the religious site where the razing of a mosque in 1992 sparked religious rioting that killed some 2,000 people.

Hindus and Muslims have quarrelled for over a century over the history of the Babri mosque in Ayodhya.

Hindus say the mosque stands on the birthplace of their god-king Rama, and was built after the destruction of a Hindu temple by a Muslim invader in the 16th century.

The Babri mosque case is one of the biggest security challenges for India this year, along with a Maoist insurgency and a Kashmiri separatist rebellion, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has said.

Political analysts say it is unlikely there will be a repeat of the mass riots and killings of 1992 but there could be sporadic religious violence.

“The timing is a problem. I suspect that’ll be on the judges’ minds and of politicians also,” said Ajai Sahni, head of the Delhi-based Institute for Conflict Management.

RACE AGAINST TIME

More teams arrived for the Games on Tuesday, including members of the New Zealand, South African and Australian teams, as authorities rushed to ready accommodation and venues for 8,000 athletes and officials for the Oct. 3 opening. Several teams were temporarily put up in luxury hotels.

India had long pledged the Commonwealth Games would rival the successful 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics.

But the chaos surrounding the event, in which 71 nations are taking part, has been a major embarrassment for the government and exposes how far India still needs to go to pull off major projects that helped make China an economic powerhouse.

National teams, governments and domestic critics have chided India for its handling of what the world’s largest democracy had hoped would be its coming out on the world stage.

Many athletes have pulled out, mainly citing a dengue fever epidemic and security. Several teams postponed their arrivals pending evidence that venues and accommodation were adequate.

Images of dirty apartments, stray dogs, beggars living by venues and workers urinating in public have proved embarrassing.

New Zealand chef de mission Dave Currie said the accommodation was not five-star, “but it’s clean and tidy”.

Further trouble was caused by the collapse of a footbridge near the main stadium.

BLAME GAME, MONKEYS

Singh and his Congress party-led coalition government have been accused of failing to give the Games the due attention expected of a large international event.

Only when the first serious signs of trouble at the Games became public a month ago did Singh take personal charge. NDTV broadcast reported the Games would be a tourist disaster. Tour operators are now expecting 10,000 visitors, down from a government estimate of 100,000.

Langur monkeys have been placed around the games venues to scare off other wildlife, including wild monkeys and dogs.

The government had seven years to prepare for the Games, but only started work in earnest two years ago.

But like Delhi, the 2004 Athens Olympics had faced a rush to complete venues which drew international censure and there were doubts the Olympics that year would even happen. The event, however, went ahead without any major glitches.

India has won praise for its new international airport, modern metro system and new flyovers cutting down traffic.

The Commonwealth Games, first held in Hamilton, Canada, in 1930, are the most well known — and sometimes the only known — activity of the Commonwealth, according to a survey released in March by the Royal Commonwealth Society.

(Additional reporting by Amlan Chakraborty, Sudipto Ganguly, Henry Foy and C.J. Kuncheria in New Delhi)

(Writing by Paul de Bendern; Editing by Alistair Scrutton and Sugita Katyal)

(For more news, visit Reuters India)

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