Major security alert as police units hunt Portugal’s ‘missing explosives’

With an inquiry ongoing into how explosives capable of mounting a large-scale terrorist attack could have been stolen from a military base in Santarém, ‘crack’ police units throughout the country are now reported to be on maximum alert.

The timing coincides with seasonal demands to up national security.

Patrols are being reinforced at all three national airports (Porto, Lisbon and Faro) while extra police too have been drafted in as part of “Verão Seguro”.

Focus, as always, is on events attracting crowds while, according to tabloid Correio da Manhã, ‘unofficial’ emphasis is also on “eliminating all the possibilities of a terrorist attack”.

Border controls are under instructions to “minutely screen” the documents of all incoming visitors, while the Algarve is being particularly boosted with police manpower to cope with the height of the summer season.

But ‘the elephant in the room’ is the ‘scandal’ that hangs over Tancos military base from which no less than 57 kilos of plastic explosives, 44 rocket launchers and over 130 hand grenades mysteriously went walkabout between security patrols last week.

Five generals have already been relieved of their responsibilities at the base while an inquiry gets underway.

CM reports that the bulk dismissals “could be provisory, if the generals are not found to be responsible”.

Meantime, minister of defence Azeredo Lopes has assumed ‘political responsibility’ for the embarrassment, for the simple reason that he holds the relevant ‘top job’ in parliament.

Today (Monday), President of the Republic Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa is calling for a probe into whether the heist could be related to others that have taken place at military bases throughout NATO countries over the last two years.

As for destination of the missing military hardware, so far no-one appears to have a clue.

When this story first broke, talk centred on it being a surgical strike almost certainly designed to get the munitions out of the country as fast as possible.

Tancos base is close to the A23 motorway which sees the Spanish frontier just 100 kms away.

Investigations are said to centre on the possibility of the theft being “an inside job” – bearing in mind the thieves appear to have had intimate knowledge of Tancos base, how patrols ‘worked’, and where certain munitions were stored.

According to CM, the usual schedule for security checks was not followed on the night the munitions were last verified as being in place (Tuesday June 27), and the base’s security cameras have not been working for two years.

As questions continue, a police source has told the paper: “This was extremely dangerous material that could easily already have left the country. It is (the kind of hardware) that is very sought after by terrorists who make their own improvised bombs”.

Spanish newspaper El Español published a full inventory of the items stolen over the weekend.

Said Público, “the Portuguese army had already calculated the exact quantities of stolen arms but opted not to reveal the information so that investigations would not be compromised”.

The probe underway is being led by Lisbon’s DCIAP in collaboration with PJ military police and the PJ’s counter terrorism unit.

If El Español is to be believed, security forces in Europe are viewing the Tancos theft as yet another potential terrorist threat.

This is the second major embarrassment for António Costa’s Socialist government which is still struggling to cope with criticism of how poorly it coordinated efforts to tackle the devastating fires of Pedrógão Grande.

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