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Attend torch rally, China urges supporters

Chinese officials have urged supporters to turn out for the Olympic torch relay in Australia, says Foreign Minister Stephen Smith.

world Updated: Apr 22, 2008 13:17 IST

Chinese officials have urged supporters to turn out for the Olympic torch relay in Australia, Foreign Minister Stephen Smith said on Tuesday, as tensions mounted over possible clashes with protesters.

Thousands of Chinese students are expected to arrive in Canberra for the relay on Thursday, along with as many as 600 pro-Tibet protesters hoping to use the spectacle to highlight alleged human rights abuses in the Himalayan region.

Smith warned that violence would not be tolerated, as he acknowledged that Chinese officials had called on pro-Beijing supporters to welcome the flame.

"I've got no evidence to suggest that the Chinese authorities are encouraging people to do anything other than to turn up and put a point of view" forward, he told reporters.

The torch relay has been beset by demonstrations since it began in Greece on March 24, days after Beijing cracked down on protests directed against Chinese rule in Tibet.

Angry protests erupted in London, Paris and San Francisco while officials around the world have been forced to increase security and alter the torch's route to safeguard its progress.

More than half the police force in Australia's capital Canberra will guard the flame when it makes its 16 kilometre (10 mile) journey through the city.

Smith said protesters were entitled to express their views peacefully.

"They're not entitled to threaten or intimidate or assault or engage in anything which impinges upon another person's right to freedom of expression," he said.

The foreign minister said protesters should use the example of social justice campaigner Lin Hatfield Dodds, who on Monday said she was withdrawing from her role as a torch bearer because of her concerns about human rights in China.

"I am not disappointed at all in her conduct, for this reason: it's a very good example, a very good example of peacefully making a point," he said.

Estimates on the numbers of Chinese supporters expected to attend vary from 2,000 to 10,000, but recent pro-Beijing rallies in Sydney and Melbourne attracted a combined crowd of 10,000.

Australian media have reported that the Chinese embassy has been involved in arranging transport, food and accommodation for those wishing to greet the Olympic flame and that the pro-Beijing crowd could reach 10,000.

No comment was immediately available from the embassy, but Sai Chiang, spokesman for the Australian Chinese Student Club, said the mission had given advice to those wanting to support the relay as individuals.

"From our perspective, we are representing the Australian Chinese Student Club and we are proud of both China and Australia," he said.

Paul Bourke, of the Australia Tibet Council, said he had concerns about the potential for clashes between the groups given that the pro-Tibet demonstrators would be greatly outnumbered, but he hoped the protests would be peaceful.

"We have concerns... about the number of Chinese students, if you want to refer to them that way, organised pro-China people," he said.

"Some of their language has been pretty provocative."

China's ambassador to Australia, Zhang Junsai, said he had been angered by the attacks on the torch in Paris and London, and he hoped the Canberra leg would be trouble free.

Zhang said the image of a young Paralympian in a wheelchair in Paris, "holding the torch with both arms close to her chest to protect the flame as violent 'protesters' tried repeatedly to grab it from her, has infuriated me."

"The Olympic Games supporters should feel concern with the behaviours displayed by some minority groups who are determined to dampen the Spirit of Olympic Games," he said in an article on the embassy's website.