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Argentina takes over Olympic torch relay

The Olympic torch, dogged by protests in early legs of its global relay, will be paraded through Buenos Aires today.

world Updated: Apr 11, 2008 08:45 IST

The Olympic torch, dogged by protests in early legs of its global relay, will be paraded through Buenos Aires on Friday with pro-Tibet supporters vowing "surprise actions" but no major disruption.

As with its European and US stops, security around the torch and its accompanying flame, kept separately, will be intense. Some 1,200 police officers and 1,500 coast guard officers are to be deployed during the parade.

The security operation began as soon as the torch, the symbol of the Beijing Games, arrived at Buenos Aires international airport on Thursday. It was whisked away on a bus escorted by dozens of police cars and motorbikes.

A senior official in Argentina's sports ministry, Francisco Irarrazaval, said the torch and the flame were taken to a central hotel where its 140-strong traveling entourage would be staying.

He said he believed the torch would run into a lesser storm of protest against China and its role in Tibet than in earlier legs, noting that "Buenos Aires is a city less compromised by the Tibet issue."

While Argentina's status as a democracy meant "it's permitted to protest," he stressed the relay was above all "a sporting event."

It is the first time the Olympic torch has ever been to Argentina, and it will carried on its 13-kilometer (eight-mile) course through the capital by 80 athletes, celebrities and Games sponsors representatives.

Authorities hope to avoid the violent scuffles seen in the relay legs in London and Paris, and the bizarre scene in San Francisco on Wednesday, when a massive police presence and sudden route change made the torch all but invisible to the public.

Buenos Aires Mayor Mauricio Macri has called the run in his city "a celebration" and "historic," noting that it was the only Latin American stop for the torch.

"We must not transform an event meant to celebrate peace and fraternity into a political action," he told a media conference this week.

Whatever happens here on Friday, though, appears too late for China to restore its hopes of winning international prestige by sending the torch through 135 cities on five continents ahead of the August 8 opening of the Olympic Games.

The early stages have been overshadowed by the protests against Beijing's repression of protests in the Himalayan region of Tibet, making Western governments -- and many Olympic sponsors -- uneasy.

Human rights and pro-Tibet protesters in Argentina have vowed to maintain the pressure, but said they would do so peacefully.
"We are not looking to put out the flame," Jorge Anibal Carcavallo, of the Free Tibet Association in Argentina, told reporters Tuesday.

He promised, however, that there would be "surprise actions" along the route.

A small group of demonstrators on Wednesday unfurled a "Free Tibet" banner in front of the landmark Obelisk that dominates the city's main avenue.

Meteorologists were forecasting cloudy weather with showers for Friday. The torch is scheduled to begin its passage at 2:00 pm (1700 GMT), starting out from an amphitheater near the city's port.

Among the prominent figures scheduled to hold aloft the torch were Argentine soccer legend Diego Maradona, Olympic cyclist Carlos Mauricio Espinola, former tennis champion Gabriela Sabatini, and Austrian former chancellor Victor Klima.

The torch was to complete its course at a horseracing club in the Palermo district.

Argentina's government has kept a low profile in the preparations for the torch relay, saying it was entirely the responsibility of the city.

President Cristina Kirchner has portrayed herself as a strong supporter of human rights, most notably attending a march last weekend in Paris calling for the release of hostages held by Colombia's leftwing FARC rebel group.

China, though, is the primary market for soyabean -- Argentina's main export and a cash crop that brings in 24 billion dollars a year from abroad -- and Buenos Aires is keen to maintain good relations with Beijing.