Rio Olympics police reinforcements come under gunfire

Rio de Janeiro (AFP) - Members of a huge police force sent to secure crime-ridden Rio before the Olympics next month have already come under gunfire, officials said Wednesday as Brazil's interim president promised "absolute peace" at the Games.

The shooting incident in the troubled north of Rio de Janeiro underlined the challenge to ensuring safety for the 10,500 athletes and 500,000 tourists expected at the August 5-21 Olympics, the first ever to be held in South America.

Brazil is deploying some 85,000 police and soldiers, double the number used for the London 2012 Olympics, with the vast majority in Rio and others in cities where the football matches are set to take place.

The attack on an elite police unit on Tuesday was the first since the reinforcements started to deploy, although similar shootings between city police and drug traffickers take place almost daily.

"A vehicle from the national force was returning from a reconnaissance mission when it was shot at," a spokesman for the Justice Ministry told AFP. "A wing mirror was hit, but no one was injured. The agents returned fire and exchanged shots in an exchange that lasted a few seconds."

O Dia and Globo newspapers reported the incident, which comes against a backdrop of soaring muggings and a rise in murders over the last year.

However, officials on Wednesday said visitors to the Olympics have nothing to fear.

"The country has put together a solid security program... to ensure that sporting events take place in an atmosphere of absolute peace and tranquility," Brazil's interim president Michel Temer said.

"This contingent of security personnel will work in an integrated fashion, overseeing the protection of athletes, coaching staff, heads of state, government officials, local residents and journalists," he added in an open letter posted in English on the Facebook page of the country's Olympic organizing committee.

Defense Minister Raul Jungmann told a news conference that he could guarantee "peace, with the happiness and calmness that we expect."

- Soldiers on patrol -

The 80-85,000 security force includes regular police, officers from the elite federal police Forca Nacional, and servicemen including soldiers, marines and units from the air force, which is enforcing air security over Rio.

A total of around 65,000 security personnel will be deployed in Rio, with another approximately 20,000 in the five football competition cities. The military component is 40,000 strong, with some 22,000 in Rio.

"This is a number that can be increased if required," Jungmann said.

While police watch the streets, soldiers will be mostly responsible for patrolling the strategic transport corridors linking the four main Olympic hubs around Rio.

The soldiers will be backed by 70 armored cars and 28 helicopters, with the full force in place by July 24, when the Olympic Village opens in the western Barra neighborhood.

Lack of boots on the ground isn't the only reason Rio's crime rate has been growing this year. Police, who have seen more than 50 of their ranks killed, are angry after months of not being paid overtime and receiving salaries late in May and June.

Police demonstrated in Rio's international airport on Monday, holding signs reading "Welcome to hell."

Justice Minister Alexandre de Moraes confirmed on Wednesday that a bailout package worth $870 million for Rio state, which is teetering near bankruptcy, is now on tap.

"The return to normal for the police should lead to a lowering of violence," he said.