Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Security tight as torch tours west China

Security tight as torch tours west China


Boxer Abudu Xukur sets off during Olympic Torch Relay, Tuesday, June 17, 2008, in Urumqi, Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, China's most western province. The torch started its relay route Tuesday through the restive region of Xinjiang amid cheering crowds and heavy security. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)

KASHGAR, China (AP) — Shops and roads were closed and people were kept off the streets Wednesday as part of a huge security effort to safeguard the Olympic torch as it wound its way through this predominantly Muslim city in China's restive far west.

Black-gloved security agents jogged alongside the flame during the relay through the streets of Kashgar, an ancient Silk Road city in the Xinjiang region near the borders of Central Asia, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Foreign journalists were not allowed along the route, where cheering bystanders shouted "Go China!" under sunny skies.

The heavy security in Xinjiang, where Beijing says violent separatists have been fighting for independence, foreshadowed the treatment the torch was likely to be given when it makes a one-day stop Saturday in Lhasa, the capital of Tibet that erupted in anti-Beijing protests and riots in March.

The flame was originally supposed to go through Tibet on Wednesday or Thursday, and it is unclear why organizers changed the date. Relay organizers announced the new date on Wednesday.

That leg has been shrouded in secrecy because of political sensitivities surrounding Tibet. The route has been criticized by Tibet 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 throughout China led 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, radicals 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.

The high level of security shows how worried Beijing is about its grip on Xinjiang, said Nicholas Bequelin, an expert on Xinjiang with the Hong Kong-based Human Rights Watch.

"The incredible extent of the effort going into security, it tells us that Beijing is not that confident of its legitimacy in the eyes of the local people."

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.

The final torch bearer in Kashgar was Dawut Haxim, who was named a hero for his relief efforts after a magnitude-6.8 quake in Xinjiang killed more than 260 people in 2003. He said by carrying the torch he was representing all Uighurs. "I hope that the rebuilding in Sichuan is a success," he told the carefully selected crowd, which appeared to be just invited dignitaries and schoolchildren. An ethnic song and dance show was also put on.

Roads were blocked, including side streets where local residents could be seen waiting behind police lines an hour after the relay ended. A short while later a convoy of 16 army trucks with soldiers in the back was seen driving through the city.

"It was no good," said one middle-aged Uighur man when asked if he was interested in the torch relay. Sitting on a step on a side street near the square in the middle of Kashgar, he waved off a reporter when asked to give his name.

Overseas activists have criticized China for using the relay to demonstrate its control over the restive areas. Many native residents reject claims that they have long been an integral part of Chinese territory and resent Han dominance over the economy and government.

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