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The Eiffel Tower: On alert

Just how safe is Europe's most-recognized monument?

Eiffel Tower Paris France Terrorism Alert
French Army soldiers are on patrol at the Eiffel Tower in Paris on Oct. 3, 2010. (Thomas Coex/AFP/Getty Images)

PARIS, France — The Eiffel Tower, beloved symbol of Paris and France, receives more than 6 million visitors every year. Every day the tower and the plaza below it, as well as the mall spreading out from its base, host thousands of people from dawn until well after dark, climbing, snapping pictures, gazing, proposing.

That would seem to make the Eiffel Tower the perfect target for terrorists. So a blanket alert from U.S. officials this week warning about terrorism in Europe made us ask the question: Just how safe is Europe’s best-known attraction?

Last month, the tower was evacuated twice after anonymous phone calls to police. More than 1,000 visitors had to flee the monument and its surroundings. The alerts turned out to be false, but the message was clear: Authorities worry the Eiffel Tower could be a target.

“It is no secret,” said Yves Trotignon, a French Security expert with Risk&Co. “We have known since 1994 that terror groups could target this monument. We found fliers from the Algerian GIA [Armed Islamic Group] with pictures of the Eiffel Tower.”

“It is a very strong symbol, it would strike people’s minds internationally,” said Trotignon. “If someone blew up the Eiffel Tower, that would make headlines all over the world.”

Several weeks ago, National Police Chief Frederic Pechenard sounded the alarm about high terror risks in France.

"France is today under threat,” Pechenard told French radio Europe 1. “For that matter, French people need to get used to it. We're now facing a peak threat that can't be doubted. There is a specific threat against French interests."

"In order to do the maximum possible damage [such an attack] would be likely to happen in a place where there are lots of people, which could be the public transit system, a department store or a gathering," Pechenard said.

Despite the terrorism alerts, tourists from many nations still swarmed the French icon Tuesday, taking pictures. They were waiting in line to see Paris from above and be able to say: “I’ve been there!”

Security guards checked visitors’ bags and each visitor has passed through a metal detector since security was beefed up several years ago.

“The presence of metal detectors near the Eiffel Tower could be enough to deter terrorists from intruding inside the monument or in the elevators,” said Trotignon. “But it might still be easy to blow a bomb near the Eiffel Tower and the symbolic impact would be similar.”

Security guards and military officers at the tower refused to say whether the alerts had led to new security measures. Contacted by email, the SETE company, which operates the Eiffel tower, said “the SETE does not wish to comment on security issues.”