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Olympic torch reaches Asia amid fears

Police authorities all over Asia are beefing up security and ammending the routes to avoid the chaos seen on earlier legs.

world Updated: Apr 14, 2008 16:40 IST

Worried authorities are reviewing their security plans as the Olympic flame heads to Asia this week, beefing up police numbers and amending the route to avoid the chaos seen on earlier legs.

The torch's round-the-world trip so far is a PR disaster for Olympics host China, and the protests by pro-Tibet and human rights activists are presenting officials from New Delhi to Canberra with a headache.

Some have amended the route the torch will take. Others are adding extra security. Still others have pledged to treat the torch with the protection a visiting head of state would get.

"I have no truck with people wanting to protest," said Ted Quinlan, who is in charge of security for the April 23 Canberra leg.

"But disruptive protests and protests that in fact involve assault of one form or another, we can't countenance," he told AFP.

Trouble has dogged the torch since protesters disrupted the flame lighting ceremony in Olympia in Greece on March 24 following China's military crackdown in the Himalayan region.

In London, police struggled to keep demonstrators from grabbing the torch, while in Paris officials were forced to extinguish the flame several times and cut short the relay.

The torch landed on Monday in Muscat after a stopover in Dar es Salaam, having earlier gone to San Francisco and Buenos Aires.

It arrives on Wednesday in Islamabad and the next day in New Delhi, then goes to Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta, Canberra, Nagano in Japan, Seoul, Pyongyang and Ho Chi Minh City.

On May 2 it arrives in Hong Kong and a day later in Macau, before starting its long journey within China, including Tibet and Mount Everest, ahead of the opening ceremony on August 8.

Quinlan said the Canberra route was being changed for security reasons. It will be made public 48 hours before the torch lands.

It will mean wider roads, keeping the public further away and placing more security people between them and the torch.
In Islamabad, the first Asian leg, officials have vowed security worthy of the head of state -- no mean feat in a nation riven by unrest.

"This will be the first ever Olympics torch relay in Pakistan," said sports ministry spokesman Fasihullah Khan. "Police will maintain tough security."

India will finalise its arrangements after a meeting with Chinese officials expected this week, the home ministry said.

Access will be blocked as the torch is borne along the avenue linking the presidential palace to the famous India Gate landmark in New Delhi.

Commandos from an elite anti-terror unit, paramilitary forces and thousands of police will be on duty, the Press Trust of India reported.

It said the relay route had been shortened from nine kilometres (six miles) to three kilometres, but that the government had told Beijing it would not ban pro-Tibet protests.

General Yuthasak Sasiprapha, chairman of the Olympic Committee of Thailand, said there were no plans as yet to amend the April 19 route through Bangkok's Chinatown.

Nevertheless, "we will keep monitoring the situation closely and we have a second plan if something happens," he told AFP. "We have another route if we cannot run on our original route."

Police Colonel Napat Chullabusapa said that at least 1,000 police and city officials would be on alert. "We believe nothing will happen, but we will not be careless."

In Malaysia, Olympic Council Secretary General Sieh Kok Chi said he feared "professional agitators from overseas" might try to disrupt the April 21 relay in Kuala Lumpur, but there would be no change to the route.

Not so in Jakarta, where authorities have scrapped plans to bring the torch to the north and west of the sprawling Indonesian capital.

Relay organiser Sumohadi Marsis told AFP the change, which means the torch will stay in the city centre, was prompted by the earlier chaos.

After Canberra the flame heads on April 26 to Nagano where organisers last month upped their security budget by a third after the Olympia incidents, but Japan's Olympic Committee chief Tsunekazu Takeda ruled out a route change.

Officials in South Korea say security details are being finalised for their April 27 leg but they will take a "very flexible approach."

No trouble is expected the next day in hardline North Korea, which numbers China as one of its very few friends around the world.
Vietnam also rarely tolerates street protests, and officials have pledged a trouble-free leg in Ho Chi Minh City.

In Hong Kong, Chief Secretary Henry Tang said last-minute detours could be introduced to avoid disruption. Both Hong Kong and Macau expect protests since -- unlike in mainland China -- they have laws and a culture of demonstrations.