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Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Security tight as Olympic torch relay continues in far western China

KASHGAR, China - Security was tight as the Olympic torch wound its way through a predominantly Muslim city in far western China on Wednesday.

Shops and roads were closed as black-gloved security agents jogged alongside the flame during the relay through the streets of Kashgar.

The city is on the ancient Silk Road in the restive Xinjiang region near the borders of Central Asia, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Foreign journalists were bused to the start and finish of Wednesday's relay, but were not allowed along the route itself.

The heavy security in Xinjiang, where Beijing says violent separatists have been fighting for independence, appears to foreshadow events Saturday when the torch makes a one-day stop in the Tibetan capital of Lhasa.

The flame was originally supposed to go through Tibet, where anti-Beijing riots erupted in March, on Wednesday or Thursday. No reason for the change in date was given.

The Tibetan leg has been shrouded in secrecy because of political sensitivities. The route has been criticized by Tibetan activist groups who see it as an attempt by Beijing to symbolize its control over the Himalayan region.

China says it has ruled Tibet for centuries, although many Tibetans say their homeland was essentially independent for much of that time.

Tensions were aggravated by the March riots and protests against Chinese rule in Lhasa and other ethnic Tibetan areas, leading to a security clampdown in the region.

Like Tibet, Xinjiang is a region with a culture and language distinct from that of China's dominant Han ethnic group. For decades, activists among its main Turkic-speaking Uighur ethnic group have been waging a low-intensity struggle against Chinese rule.

On at least three occasions this year, authorities say they foiled plots by Xinjiang separatists that targeted the Olympics either directly or indirectly, including alleged attempts by ethnic Uighur activists to crash an airliner and kidnap athletes and journalists.

In Kashgar on Wednesday, hundreds of militia and police lined the torch route, which began near a downtown mosque with several speeches praising China's development over the last 30 years.

Xinjiang officials accompanied foreign journalists on a bus to the relay and did not allow them to wander from the group. After the start, the journalists were taken to the finish point - a square dominated by a giant statue of Mao Zedong, a reminder of heavy-handed Communist party rule over the region since People's Liberation Army forces entered in 1949.

Hundreds of schoolchildren were also on hand, waving Chinese and Olympic flags. A moment of silence was held first to honor the nearly 70,000 victims of last month's earthquake centered in Sichuan province.

The relay with 208 runners ended without incident two hours later.

The torch has had a smooth run in China, undisturbed by the protests over Tibet and human rights that hounded parts of its international tour. Yet the Xinjiang leg and the one in Tibet are by far the most sensitive of the domestic relay - a fact underscored by the heavy security.

Organizers said last month that the Tibet stop, originally three days, would be cut to one day to make way for a switch in the torch's Sichuan leg to just before the start of the Aug. 8 Olympics.

© La Presse Canadienne, 2008



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