World

Arrests and security fears cast a shadow over New Year's Eve in Europe

Paris: Shaken by a year of militant attacks, Europeans will ring in 2016 in subdued fashion, with soldiers on the streets of Paris, a heightened police presence at Berlin's Brandenburg Gate and silence across the vast cobbled emptiness of Moscow's Red Square.

Happy New Year Sydney!

Sydney welcomes in 2016 with a spectacular fireworks display across the harbour. (Vision courtesy ABC News)

Bookended by deadly Islamist assaults on Paris, the departing year limped to a close with security forces on raised alert in many capitals and Belgian authorities announcing a series of terrorism-related arrests.

The plot to carry out an attack on Brussels on New Year's Eve led to the complete cancellation of the city's traditional December 31 fireworks display.

New Year decorations in Tverskaya Street in Moscow – nearby Red Square will be closed to New Year's Eve revellers.
New Year decorations in Tverskaya Street in Moscow – nearby Red Square will be closed to New Year's Eve revellers. Photo: Pavel Golovkin

In Russia, officials said the closure of Red Square – usually the focal point of celebrations – was to allow the filming of a New Year concert.

But that was denied by the television company concerned, prompting speculation that the real reason is fear of an attack. Russia began bombing Syrian rebel targets on September 30 in support of its ally President Bashar al-Assad; a month later, a Russian plane was downed over Egypt, with the loss of 224 lives, in an attack claimed by Islamic State. Turkey has since shot down a Russian fighter.

A shadow over Paris

Seven weeks after the latest attacks and a week before the first anniversary of the gunning-down of cartoonists and staff at satirical paper Charlie Hebdo, Paris is greeting the New Year in what Mayor Anne Hidalgo called "an atmosphere of sobriety and togetherness".

A French foreign legionnaire patrols outside the Grand Palais museum near the Champs-Élysées  in Paris.
A French foreign legionnaire patrols outside the Grand Palais museum near the Champs-Élysées in Paris. Photo: Michel Euler

The city has shortened a New Year video light show at the Arc de Triomphe at midnight, and cancelled a fireworks display to keep down crowds.

Soldiers are deployed at key tourist sites including Notre Dame cathedral, where tourist Mark Scarrott was visiting from Australia.

A New Year's Eve snowman is built in front of the Blue Mosque in Istanbul.
A New Year's Eve snowman is built in front of the Blue Mosque in Istanbul. Photo: Chris McGrath

"We do feel safe. Obviously, New Year's Eve will be a little bit different for this city. I don't think we will be heading out into the main attractions, just because of the things that have happened," he said.

Across Europe, the deadliest year of militant attacks since 2004 has compounded a mood of worry and uncertainty. 

Armed police near London's Big Ben on New Year's Eve.
Armed police near London's Big Ben on New Year's Eve. Photo: Frank Augstein

On December 26, Vienna police said a "friendly" intelligence service had warned European capitals of the possibility of a shooting or bomb attack before New Year, prompting police across the continent to increase security measures.

Policing the partygoers

Many Europeans will still be out to party, of course, but under a much tighter than usual security presence.

At the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, organisers expect more than 1 million people to gather to watch a fireworks display at midnight. Some 150 additional police officers will be deployed to secure the event, a police spokesman said, and no one will be allowed to bring in bags and backpacks.

Authorities in Madrid said they were fielding 15 per cent more police and emergency staff than a year ago for year-end events, including the 'Saint Silvester' evening fun run through the Spanish capital.

About 3,000 police will be on duty across central London, with an increased number of firearms officers in and around major stations.

A spokesman for the Italian police force said there would be more than 30 per cent more officers on duty across the country than a year ago, "not because it's New Year but because of what happened on November 13 in Paris".

Security has been tightened for the customary open air concert at the Circus Maximus in Rome. In Milan, those attending the New Year concert in the square outside the Gothic cathedral will have to negotiate security corridors with barriers, checkpoints, police patrols and a ban on fireworks and glass bottles.

A quiet night in

In the Turkish city of Istanbul, a bridge between the continents of Europe and Asia, police said they had ramped up the number of officers on the streets by around 10,000, thanks to staff working longer shifts.

"Normally I go out to the bars on the Asian side of Istanbul but this year, because of the danger of ISIS (Islamic State), I will spend New Year's Eve in my home," said Seyda Yilmaz, a 26-year old IT expert.

On Wednesday, Turkish police detained two suspected Islamic State members they believe to have been plotting New Year's Eve suicide attacks in the capital Ankara, where less than three months ago a double suicide bombing killed more than 100 people.

The streets of Kizilay in central Ankara were still busy on Thursday afternoon despite the looming security threat and sub-zero temperatures. Selih, who works in one of the many bars dotting the area, said the latest arrests had alarmed people.

"It makes tonight harder, but these are natural risks. We're expecting 500 people this evening. We think they will still come and we'll have security on the door like usual," he said.

But student Hande Balkis said many were choosing to stay away from the capital's busier areas.

"Of course we're scared," she said. "Turkey is very complex at the moment and Ankara feels a bit dangerous." 

Reuters