Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Tight security as Olympic flame starts Xinjiang leg

Tight security as Olympic flame starts Xinjiang leg

URUMQI, China (AFP) — Police imposed a security lockdown as the Olympic torch Tuesday started its run through China's mainly Muslim region of Xinjiang, seen as one of the most sensitive legs on its nationwide journey.

The centre of the regional capital Urumqi was largely shut down and police checkpoints restricted movement throughout the normally bustling city.

Police imposed particularly heavy security at the central People's Square, where Tuesday's relay kicked off, and anyone entering had to go through metal detectors and bag searches.

The flame's passage through Xinjiang and the Tibetan regions of China are considered the most sensitive of the three-month journey to the Beijing Games in August because of simmering discontent among local ethnic groups.

The three-day, four-city Xinjiang leg began with a 12-kilometre (7.5-mile) relay through Urumqi from People's Square, regarded as a symbol of Communist power in the city.

The crowd, numbering about 3,000, chanted "Go, China!" and "Go, Olympics!" as the relay got underway under sunny skies. Many had stickers of the Chinese flag on their cheeks.

They were overwhelmingly Han Chinese, with only a tiny number of Uighurs, the largest ethnic group in the region.

Leading away from the square, the crowds lining the route were also mostly Chinese, many of them young people given a break from their studies, as well as government employees.

"What I am passing on is the friendship and solidarity of ethnic minorities in Xinjiang," one torchbearer was widely quoted as saying on state-run television.

After the torch had passed, the security apparatus was quickly dismantled. The relay ended at about noon, after the flame had been carried by 208 torch bearers.

Xinjiang is a region of vast deserts and stunning mountains that is home to more than eight millions Uighurs, a Muslim, Central Asian people who speak a Turkic language.

Many Uighurs discreetly allege Chinese political and religious oppression and systematic discrimination against them in employment, education, and business.

The Urumqi relay appeared to get under way without trouble, but AFP could not immediately determine its further progress as Chinese authorities required journalists to choose just one vantage point.

The torch was not due to pass through the Uighur quarter in the south of the city, a local official told AFP. The public also was urged to watch the relay on television to keep the proceedings more controllable.

A large red banner at the square called for unity among Xinjiang's ethnic minorities, while a giant TV screen showed video footage proclaiming that its 47 minorities "get along so well."

Despite Tuesday's fanfare, some Uighurs were bemused by the relay's arrival.

"What does it have to do with us? That is China's Olympics. We don't care," a shop owner named Azatjan said dismissively before the start, as his daughter urged him to be quiet.

Uighur exiles and residents told AFP that Chinese authorities had detained thousands of Uighurs, and confiscated the passports of many others, in recent months.

Some Muslims told AFP the passport measure was to prevent anyone linking up abroad with "terrorist" plots aimed at the Olympics.

The sensitivity of the Xinjiang leg was heightened earlier this year when Beijing said it had smashed Xinjiang-based terror plots targeting the Games.

Uighurs widely dismiss such Chinese claims as an attempt to justify strict control of Xinjiang.

"Uighurs are living in a culture of fear, facing persecution, marginalisation and assimilation that erode the very core of their cultural identity, religious belief and economic rights," said Dilxat Raxit, spokesman for the Germany-based World Uighur Congress, an exile group.

The torch moves Wednesday to the Silk Road oasis city of Kashgar, then to the cities of Shihezi and Changji on Thursday.

The timing of the Xinjiang leg had been unexpectedly brought forward from its original slot next week.

The leg through Tibet, shrouded in mystery after anti-Chinese riots erupted across the Tibetan plateau in March, will take place on Saturday, state media said Monday.

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