Visiting pope, pilgrims pose Lourdes security test

10th August 2004, Comments 0 comments

TARBES, France, Aug 10 (AFP) - When Pope John Paul II visits Lourdes this weekend, France will deploy 2,700 police to tackle a dual security challenge - protecting the pontiff and the 300,000 pilgrims expected in the "miracle" town.

TARBES, France, Aug 10 (AFP) - When Pope John Paul II visits Lourdes this weekend, France will deploy 2,700 police to tackle a dual security challenge - protecting the pontiff and the 300,000 pilgrims expected in the "miracle" town.  

The police and gendarmes will fan out over a 50-kilometer (30-mile) swathe of territory in the French Pyrenees ahead of the pope's arrival on Saturday in Tarbes, where he will be welcomed by French President Jacques Chirac.  

From Friday, police will carry out random security checks and help keep traffic flowing as they guide the hundreds of thousands of faithful to Lourdes from nearby Tarbes and Pau, where they will be forced to abandon their cars.  

"Pilgrims are not hooligans, but we must maintain order and avoid petty crimes like theft," said one regional police official.  

More than 3,000 police were mobilized for the pontiff's last pilgrimage to the Marian shrine at Lourdes in 1983, but Michel Bilaud, prefect for the Hautes-Pyrenees region, said this year's smaller force is more sophisticated.  

Special teams trained to handle nuclear, biological and chemical attacks - along with canine and mounted police units - will be on hand for John Paul II's two-day visit to France, his second trip abroad this year, Bilaud said.  

Several anti-aircraft missile batteries have been put in place around Lourdes and recreational flying activities suspended during the event. Mine-sweeping teams, helicopters with sharpshooters on board and elite police units will be on site.  

Some 300 gendarmes will surround the pope - who survived an assassination attempt in St Peter's Square in May 1981 - as he makes his way from the Tarbes airport to Lourdes, with traffic cut off three hours ahead of his arrival.  

Before the pontiff even sets foot on French soil, police will comb the area in a bid to avoid an unfortunate incident like the explosion that destroyed a statue of Pontius Pilate in Lourdes ahead of the pope's 1983 visit.  

Firefighters, rescue teams, health inspectors and more than 3,000 volunteers will also be on hand to provide assistance to the 300,000 pilgrims expected in Lourdes when the pope celebrates mass on Sunday to mark the Assumption of the Virgin Mary - her ascent into heaven.  

Some 40 first aid posts will be set up throughout the town, along with two stations providing extended medical services so that those requiring extra care will not need to be evacuated through difficult traffic from the mobbed site.  

Of the six million people who visit Lourdes each year, hundreds of thousands of them come to pray for a medical miracle - to be cured by the holy water from the spring discovered by 14-year-old Bernadette Soubirous in 1858 after she had a series of visions of the Virgin Mary.  

An emergency team made up of a doctor, a nurse and an emergency medical technician will be at the ready at any moment to help the ailing pope, who suffers from a debilitating case of Parkinson's disease.  

A helicopter will be available should the 84-year-old head of the Roman Catholic Church need to be airlifted.  

With the spectre of last year's deadly heat wave - which killed 15,000 people nationwide - looming over the event, hundreds of thousands of water bottles will be made available to pilgrims throughout the weekend.  

"If we have to, we'll spray mist over the crowd," Bilaud said.

 

© AFP

 

Subject: French news

 

 

 

 

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