US base at Souda Bay on high alert

Police on the island of Crete yesterday arrested four Israeli nationals who had been acting suspiciously near facilities of the US naval base at Souda Bay near Hania. Security officials at the base and local law enforcement agencies had been on the alert since Tuesday and searching for two men and a woman who were described as Middle Eastern, who were seen at the facility taking photographs of military activities, officials said. According to US base sources who requested anonymity, the incident occurred last Tuesday when a rented car drove close to the base and the two men and a woman within started taking photographs of the buildings and activities on the grounds of the base. Officials noted, based on the car’s license plate number, that the vehicle apparently had been rented on Crete. Four people were arrested yesterday and were being held for questioning last night. A team of security police officers flew down from Athens to investigate, Public Order Ministry sources said. Their Israeli passports were not fake, they said. The base – the last on Greek soil after the closure of two US Air Force bases in the early 1990s, at Hellenikon near Athens and at Iraklion on Crete – has been actively involved in the ongoing theater-wide operations in Afghanistan. Several reconnaissance aircraft, such as the US Air Force’s RC-135, and refueling tanker KC-135, have been flying missions out of Souda Bay for the past couple of weeks, carrying out key intelligence-gathering missions. Located approximately 4,000 km (2,485 miles) from Kabul, the US naval base is on the front line of surveillance as the RC-135 planes have a range of 9,100 km (5,650 miles), though they can be refueled in midair by KC-135 tankers if necessary. Intelligence gathered by these aircraft is processed on the base, which is also the site of the National Security Agency’s (NSA) Consolidated Reconnaissance Operations Facility (CROF), and then relayed back to the United States for analysis by the security agency. Most of the operations are conducted at night when other types of aircraft in transit to the theater of operations land at the airfield of the American base for refueling. US base officials are taking last Tuesday’s incident very seriously, coming at a time when they have increased the security posture on base grounds following the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States. The base has a total of 875 personnel, 500 of whom are military, and is currently operating at Force Protection Level Charlie, which applies when an incident occurs or intelligence indicates some form of terrorist action against personnel and/or facilities is imminent. According to sources, the suspicious vehicle was spotted by covert local law enforcement units which had been deployed outside the American base. Meanwhile, US base security officials brace for a massive anti-war rally planned this Sunday by leftist groups, which aim at bringing together groups from around the island. Protesters will gather at 11 a.m. in the central square of the western city of Hania, located a few kilometers from Souda Bay, and then will descend on the American base with buses and cars. It is not known if law enforcement officials will repeat past attempts to block the rally from reaching the military facility, in an effort to prevent any possible skirmishes with police officers at the gate.

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