IOC president praises Russia's Games preparations

By Alexei Anishchuk

SOCHI, Russia (Reuters) - International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach praised Russia's preparations for the 2014 Winter Games in the Black Sea resort of Sochi during an inspection visit with President Vladimir Putin on Monday.

Russia is spending more than $50 billion on the February Games, a top priority for Putin to showcase the country's modern face to the world two decades after the fall of the Soviet Union.

"We are fully confident that the Games will be on a magnificent level," Bach said in his first comments about Russia's readiness for the Games.

"We are extremely grateful to you for the magnificent co-operation we developed in recent years. Sochi and the whole region completed a very big, successful development journey and we have been deeply impressed with this path," he said in comments translated from German into Russian as he sat next to Putin, a fluent German speaker.

The praise must have been music to Putin's ears because he has staked his reputation on the success of the Games.

Putin said Russia still needed to make a final push to finish off preparations with just over three months before the Games open on February 7.

"Now that the overwhelming majority of sites are almost ready, there's a final push left, we need to accomplish this final milestone," Putin said.

"We need to prepare everything once and for all."

During a previous inspection of the Olympics venues last month, Putin urged officials to overcome failures and delays in preparatory works.

Olympic preparations have been marred by over-running costs and delays and organisers have faced criticism from rights groups over the treatment of migrant workers engaged in large-scale construction works.

In the West, the Games have even been subject to calls for a boycott over a law passed by Russia banning "homosexual propaganda" among minors and denounced by critics as discriminatory and a tool to persecute the gay community.

But Putin and Bach did not mention the issue at the start of their talks.

Moscow is also trying to head off potential security threats in Sochi, a few hundred kilometres from the volatile North Caucasus region where Russia is struggling to quell a persistent Islamist insurgency.

A deadly suicide bombing in southern Russia on October21, blamed on a Muslim woman from the North Caucasus, highlighted increased security risks in proximity to the mountainous region.

The Russian parliament has toughened punishments for those who take part in military conflicts abroad as officials estimate up to 400 people have left Russian territory to fight along with the international jihadists in Syria.

(Writing by Gabriela Baczynska, editing by Ed Osmond)

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