The world appeared on edge on Thursday as 2015 fades into the history books, with terror alerts in major cities from Europe to China. Security agencies in Turkey and Belgium said they had foiled terror attacks and several cities such as Paris and Brussels took the unprecedented step of cancelling traditional New Year celebrations.
The Belgian government resorted to the unusual step of cancelling fireworks and celebrations in the capital Brussels because of a heightened national alert. Last year’s festivities in Brussels were joined by 100,000 people and Mayor Yvan Mayeur said: “In these circumstances, we can’t check everyone.”
Prime Minister Charles Michel said the decision to cancel celebrations in Brussels had been taken “given information we have received”.
Authorities arrested two men belonging to a Muslim biker gang called the Kamikaze Riders during raids on Sunday and Monday on suspicion of planning attacks on “symbolic targets” such as Brussels’ Grand Place square, other locations where crowds gather for New Year’s celebrations and police and military facilities. Reports quoted Belgian counter-terrorism officials as saying said the plot was “inspired but not directed by” the Islamic State.
The country has been on high alert since the Paris attacks by the IS on November 13 because several of the suspects were based in Belgium.
Turkish police said they had disrupted a planned suicide bomb plot to attack New Year’s Eve revellers in the capital Ankara by arresting two suspects who are believed to be members of the IS. The suspects were planning to attack Ankara’s main square, the scene of annual December 31 celebrations, officials told the Anadolu news agency.
The Ankara Chief Prosecutor’s office said the suspects had plans to target two locations near Kizilay, a shopping and restaurant district in the heart of Ankara, and were equipped with explosive vests packed with ball bearings. The suspects were arrested in Yakup Abdal on the southern outskirts of the city on Wednesday.
Turkish media reports said police officers wearing Father Christmas outfits and other disguises to patrol crowds will be part of the security measures being put in place in Istanbul and other cities.
On October 10, an attack by two suicide bombers on a peace rally in Ankara killed 103 people. The attack, which also injured hundreds, was the deadliest in Turkey’s history and was blamed on IS supporters.
Indian authorities issued a terror advisory to all states for New Year and Republic Day celebrations that called for heightened vigil at places with high foot falls and destinations frequented by foreigners. Officials said intelligence inputs have suggested there could be strikes by Pakistan-based terror groups or an “IS-inspired attack”.
Patrolling will be increased and additional forces will be deployed at crowded places such railway stations, bus terminals, shopping malls and religious shrines.
Police in key cities like Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai, Bengaluru, Hyderabad and Goa were directed to be “extra vigilant” during New Year celebrations. In Delhi, joint commissioner of police Mukesh Kumar Meena said the Rajiv Chowk Metro station would be closed after 9 pm on the eve of New Year’s celebrations.
On Tuesday, the US embassy in Bangladesh warned Americans of possible attacks on hotels and clubs in the capital Dhaka during New Year’s eve celebrations. Dhaka police too prohibited outdoor parties at night and increased checkpoints in several parts of the city.
The warning came on the heels of a travel alert from the US State Department that cautioned Americans travelling to Bangladesh about potential extremist violence following recent attacks on foreigners and religious minorities that were claimed by the IS.
Like Brussels, Paris too has cancelled a New Year’s fireworks display but a traditional gathering on the Champs-Elysees boulevard will go ahead amid heightened security.
Projections on the Arc de Triomphe – a key part of the celebrations – will be kept brief and giant screens will be erected at intervals so that large crowds do not gather at any one spot.
“We have decided to mark the New Year in a reflective manner and without fanfare,” Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo said, referring to the November 13 attacks by the IS that killed 130 people.
Following warnings about terror attacks on several European cities, authorities in Vienna beefed up security. A statement from Vienna Police on Saturday said a “friendly” intelligence service had warned of attacks with explosives and guns on several cities across Europe between Christmas and New Year’s eve.
The statement said the warning included the names of possible attackers that Vienna Police had investigated without finding “concrete” results. Police in Vienna and other cities stepped up surveillance and security checks in public places and put in place measures to respond to any contingency.
Moscow’s iconic Red Square, where crowds normally gather to countdown to the New Year, will be completely closed off to revellers on December 31amid mounting security concerns.
Police will turn back everyone heading to the square for the countdown to midnight sounded by the chimes of the Kremlin’s tower clock, Moscow security chief Alexei Mayorov was quoted as saying on the city hall’s website.
The official reason given for the unprecedented closure was the filming of a live concert for state-run television that only a select audience will be allowed to attend.
Moscow introduced a raft of tighter security measures since the Paris terror attacks. “It’s not a secret that Moscow is a desired target for an attack by international terrorists,” Mayor Sergei Sobyanin said earlier this month.
Backpacks and fireworks will be prohibited in the capital Berlin and tighter security measures will be in place around the Brandenburg Gate, which has been closed since Christmas. About a million people are expected to attend the celebrations in Berlin.
American authorities have stepped up security in traditional venues for New Year’s even celebrations, including the Times Square in New York and the Rose Bowl near Los Angeles.
Security officials briefed President Barack Obama, before he left for a vacation in Hawaii, about an “overseas” threat of attacks in New York, Los Angeles and Washington between the Christmas and New Year. US media reports described the threat as uncorroborated and based on a single source.
Some 6,000 police officers will guard the Times Square during the annual New Year’s Eve celebrations, CNN reported. Security has also been tightened up in other parts of the country in the wake of the San Bernardino shootings that left 14 dead.
Other tools being used to improve security are helicopters, radiation detectors and mobile cameras, which will be positioned along the route of the Rose Bowl Parade.
(With inputs from agencies)