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Budapest police step up protection of US and other embassies

More security personnel, more intensive information gathering, new protocols – a slew of measures Hungarian police and private contractors guarding embassies in Hungary are taking in order to protect diplomatic objects in Budapest.

All is quiet around the UK Embassy on the corner of Budapest’s Erzsébet tér. Harmincad utca, the street on which the embassy’s entrance is, has been closed off from car traffic and pedestrian traffic usually treads on the other side of the street, as well. It is very similar to what you would have seen before Osama bin Laden’s death. But in fact, it is invisibly different. Osama has died and the world is expecting retribution, at least a symbolic one. And due to the UK’s past role in combating terrorists, the British Embassy in Budapest could, according to Hungarian officials, be one of the embassies under threat.

It is not the only one where security has been tightened. According to the Hungarian Foreign Ministry, the US and “its closest allies and partners in past military operations” are the most likely to be threatened in any terrorist retribution following the killing of the most wanted terrorist since September 11, 2001. This means that Israel’s, Germany’s and France’s embassies are now also under more intensive police protection in Budapest, as well as the US’s, of course.

“We are constantly reviewing the situation and we are doing everything to enable us to react well. Some things we are doing can be seen, but securing these premises also includes steps that are hid from the eyes of the public,” says Eszter Pataki, head of the ministry’s press department. “If we deem it necessary, we detail more personnel to protect the embassies,” she added.

In practice, a stronger threat level has brought little change to the life of the embassies. “We are monitoring the situation and whenever we become aware of a threat, we have a responsibility to issue a warning,” Bradley A. Hurst press attaché of the United States Embassy to Hungary told the Budapest Business Journal. The US has issued a warning to its citizens, especially those residing in countries featured on the Department of State’s travel warning list, to exercise additional caution and if possible, stay at home for a while. The administration also ordered strengthening the protection of diplomatic assets abroad.

Privately defended

In many cases, more threat makes more work for the private contractors in charge of protecting diplomatic institutions. The protection of diplomatic institutions is overseen by the law enforcement of the host nation, as regulated by the Vienna Convention of 1961 on a basis of mutuality, but the diplomacies can and often do hire companies like In-Kal Security to provide additional protection.

As Dr István Bökönyi, strategic director at In-Kal told the BBJ, the company is one of the biggest in its field in Hungary and is currently in charge of protecting four different diplomatic assets belonging to nations that are high on the terror-threat list. In-Kal currently has tens of security professionals on such assignments, Bökönyi said without revealing the actual number. Some of the assignments involve armed service performed by specially trained professionals.

Contractors overseeing security assignments are regularly keeping track of global events and are ready to respond, Bökönyi, a retired three-star general with a career in law enforcement and counter-terrorism said. “When there is a threat, our guards on duty are fully briefed of the situation and know what to do,” he added.

Shifting marks

Terrorists’ targets of choice have changed somewhat in the past years, but the leading nations are the same. Naturally, the United States tops the list, but France is now also considered a target after President Nicolas Sarkozy became the leading figure of allied air attacks against Muammar Kaddafi’s regime in Libya.

Another leading candidate is India. For historic reasons, there has never been any love lost between India and Pakistan, the country that was revealed to be the home for the hiding bin Laden. Besides long-lasting tensions that occasionally led to armed conflicts along the border, the biggest incident that reshaped how life is lived in bigger Indian cities came in 2008.

India has been living with greatly bolstered security every since, when a coordinated set of bombings and shootings killed 364 people and wounded at least another 308 in the business district of Mumbai. The attackers turned out to be Islamic extremists from Pakistan.

Accordingly, Indians have had to cope with greater security, such as frisking and metal detectors whenever entering a place that is crowded or could potentially serve as a target, like the subway or shopping malls.

 

However, while the police officially in charge of safety has a code to abide by in similar cases, security contractors are employed by the embassies themselves, they act on the clients’ order. Depending on the given embassies requirements or the instructions received from their governments, the provisions at any given time can be boosted or accepted as satisfactory. Without divulging specifics, Bökönyi said In-Kal has indeed assigned additional personnel in the wake of bin Laden’s termination on client demand, but the number was not significant.

Security providers also have a range of tools at their disposal that they can put to use. As Bökönyi explained, it is common practice to install metal detectors, body and baggage scanners at entry points, just as vehicles are inspected to ascertain they are not used to carry explosives. Buildings are regularly surveilled by CCTV cameras, which can also be linked to satellites.

Symbolic targets

Protecting diplomatic bureaus always comes with a dilemma: since they have limited protection but still have symbolic significance, they are what is referred to as “soft” targets and are therefore the preferred targets of attacks. At the same time they are also functional units with office hours and people having to come and go all the time and hence cannot be simply sealed off.

But this softness is not the same as it was a few years earlier. In fact, diplomatic interests are now heavily protected, particularly in countries where terrorist strikes are to be expected. As an expert told the BBJ, this mainly consists of activating information channels to gather data for the decisions that need to be taken and measures by secret services. Both are often kept strictly confidential.