Russia backs colour-coded terror alert system

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Russia's parliament gave initial backing Friday to a new colour-coded terror alert system whose approval was rushed forward by a month in the wake of this week's horrific Moscow airport bombing.

The State Duma lower house of parliament also gave final approval Friday to a new police law that aims to eliminate 20 percent of the force by next year while creating better wage and training conditions.

The joint votes highlight Russia's urgent efforts to repair its image following a suspected suicide bombing that killed 35 people at Russia's busiest airport just as the country prepares to host a series of high-profile events.

The recently-updated Domodedovo airport will be used by tens of thousands of people as they flood into Russia from across the globe for both the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi and the 2018 World Cup.

The blast -- which officials privately link to Islamic militants from Russia's troubled North Caucasus -- went off at the international arrivals terminal.

The Duma has provided few details about how the new colour-coded system is supposed to work. Its sets blue as the lightest alert level and moves up to codes yellow and red.

The first of three required Duma votes on the bill was held just a day after Washington announced that it would abandon its own colour-coded system at the end of April.

Critics have complained that the codes create unnecessary panic while doing little to improve security. But it backers in Russia said the system had to be tried in the face of repeated attacks.

A senior National Anti-Terror Committee official said the alerts were supposed to help streamline how Russia's various security structures respond to the threat of an attack.

"We felt (this lack of clarity) when we started our investigation" into Monday's suspected suicide bombing at Domodedovo, Andrei Przhezdomsky told Russian state television.

"Where did one person's responsibilities begin and another one's end? We did not know -- and this is not how things are supposed to work."

Lawmakers said the yellow alert level would allow the police to step up their random checks of people's documents while code red would enable security officials to tap phones and break into apartments without warrants.

Both the terror alert system and the police law have raised concerns among rights groups that liberties -- already under threat amid bans on protests and tight state controls of TV -- would suffer another blow.

But Russian officials appear sensitive to such charges and were at pains Friday to brush off suggestions that the country was gradually becoming a police state.

"We cannot search everyone everywhere they go," said Przhezdomsky. "As we wait for the next explosion, we cannot simply set up a concentration camp in which life becomes impossible."

One of the new police law's most widely-discussed features involves a name change that has been stridently denounced by Russia's more nationalist forces.

The country's internal security force has been known since the Soviet era as "the militia" -- militsiya in Russia.

But President Dmitry Medvedev announced last summer that it was time to give the force a more modern image and call it "the police" -- or politsiya.

"Sure, Medvedev will go down in history as the man who changed the name," liberal Yabloko party leader Sergei Mitrokhin told the Interfax news agency.

"But unfortunately, the adopted law is not accompanied by any real reforms."

© 2011 AFP

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