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Protesters must heed laws, Ashcroft says

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Attorney General John Ashcroft said Olympic protesters will have the chance to speak their minds as long as they remain lawful during the 2002 Winter Games.

"We want the Olympics to be peaceful," Ashcroft said Tuesday following his four-day review of security preparations for the Salt Lake Games. "Things that would illegally interrupt that peace or disrupt that security are obviously matters of concern, but people who, in accordance with their peaceful rights, express themselves ? they are not to be in any way impaired."

Ashcroft also repeated his assurances that the Games will be safe. Since arriving in Salt Lake City on Thursday night, Ashcroft has toured venues, reviewed security details and received briefings from numerous public safety leaders.

"I have never witnessed a better prepared set-up," Ashcroft said, adding that Utah is so well-prepared that the Games could be held here regularly.

His glowing critique of Olympic security preparations mirror those of Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge, FBI Director Robert Mueller and Secretary of the Army Thomas E. White, who have all visited Utah within the past 2 1/2 months and declared Salt Lake City will be well-protected from threats of terrorism.

"We want very much for people to feel secure in this arena," Ashcroft said.

Olympic officials have prepared for several types of disruptions, including unlawful demonstrations. The Utah Olympic Public Safety Command, a consortium of roughly 60 federal, state and local law-enforcement agencies charged with protecting the Games, has received several threatening letters from various groups promising to disrupt traffic or derail the opening ceremonies.

Public safety command officials, however, have not named the groups that have made such threats. Animal-rights protesters plan to demonstrate at the Olympic rodeo, and homeless advocates are planning a march on the opening ceremonies Feb. 8 at Rice-Eccles Stadium.

"The protest issue came to light about a year ago," UOPSC Commander Robert Flowers said recently. "Then it died down, and then it's reared its head again."

Salt Lake City has established about a half-dozen "protest zones" strategically placed downtown and near Rice-Eccles Stadium, home to opening and closing ceremonies, where small groups of demonstrators can gather.

Ashcroft said that while the federal government is committed to informing UOPSC of any viable threats to the Games, security officials have not focused on specific protest organizations.

"We didn't single out groups," Ashcroft said. "We focused on this idea of having an environment in which people would compete, to reach their highest levels of potential."

E-mail: djensen@desnews.com