By Phil Stewart and Steve Holland
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States will have “appropriate arrangements” with Russia to ensure the evacuation of Americans from the Sochi Winter Olympics, if necessary, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said on Friday, amid militant threats to attack the Games.
Russian security forces are hunting a woman suspected of planning a suicide bombing and of being in Sochi already and U.S. officials acknowledged on Friday an increase in reported threats ahead of the Games.
The U.S. military has said two ships will be deployed to the Black Sea during the Winter Olympics and the Pentagon has also made clear it is willing to assist Russia, if needed.
Still, it is far from clear that Russia would allow U.S. military assets into its territory following a security incident, and Moscow has made no request for U.S. security assistance so far.
Asked about the matter at a Pentagon news conference, Hagel said only that proper arrangements would be in place, without saying specifically who might do the evacuating.
“If we need to extract our citizens, we will have appropriate arrangements with the Russians to do this,” Hagel said.
Senior Obama administration officials later clarified that although the U.S. military can be an option for evacuations, U.S. citizens can be evacuated on commercial or even charter flights and that Russia had primary responsibility to respond to and cope with any incident during the Games.
The officials, speaking in a conference call with reporters, also said the United States did not yet have a firm evacuation plan for Americans, although it could put one together quickly if needed.
“There’s no Sochi Olympics evacuation plan on the shelf that we’re just ready to pull off,” one official said.
After two suicide bombings killed 34 people in the southern city of Volgograd last month, Russia has been keen to assure athletes and spectators that the Olympics in Sochi, in the turbulent North Caucasus region, will be safe.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has staked his political reputation on organizing a successful Olympics and has tightened security nationwide. Security at the Olympics came up in a call between Putin and U.S. President Barack Obama this week.
Some 230 American athletes are expected at the Games, along with 270 coaches and support staff for the American team. A five person U.S. delegation led by Janet Napolitano, a former secretary of Homeland Security, will head to Sochi and as many as 10,000 American spectators are expected to attend the Games.
Although the U.S. officials said there had been an increase in the number of threats being reported in the run-up to the Games, one official noted that was not “entirely unusual” ahead of a major international event.
The officials said there will be American diplomatic security agents accompanying U.S. athletes at all the venues.
Athletes have been advised not to wear American Olympic uniforms outside of the event site.
“It’s just good common sense,” one official said.
(Additional reporting by David Alexander; Editing by Ken Wills)