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Olympic torch run takes off amid security

The Olympic torch begins its journey through China's restive west amid tightly controlled crowds and heavy security as authorities seek to prevent displays of defiance.
By Scott McDonald | AP, Urumqi
UPDATED ON JUN 17, 2008 03:06 PM IST

The Olympic torch began its journey through China's restive west on Tuesday amid tightly controlled crowds and heavy security as authorities sought to prevent displays of defiance.

A phalanx of security agents jogged on either side of torchbearers, who high-fived each other as they passed the flame along the streets of Urumqi, the capital of the predominantly Muslim Xinjiang region.

Police and troops closely watched thousands of onlookers, hand-picked by officials, as they waved the national flag and shouted "Go China!" from behind metal barriers. Sniffer dogs patrolled Muslim areas and organizers urged a "safe and orderly viewing of the relay" through a state-run newspaper. While the Olympic torch has had a smooth run in China uninterrupted by the protests over Tibet and human rights that hounded parts of its international tour stops in Xinjiang and Tibet are the most sensitive, and the precautions underscore Beijing's concerns.

Overseas activists have criticized China for using the relay to show its control over the restive areas.

Like Tibet, Xinjiang is a region with a culture that is distinctly different from that of China's ethnic Han majority. The Muslim, Turkic-speaking Uighurs have long sought independence, waging a low-intensity struggle against Chinese rule. Many have been sentenced to long prison terms or death on separatism charges. The Han dominate the region's economy and government. On at least three occasions this year, authorities say that they foiled plots by Xinjiang separatists that targeted the games either directly or indirectly, including alleged attempts to crash an airliner and kidnap athletes and journalists.

On Tuesday, the Olympic flame began its trip through Xinjiang after a minute's silence for the May 12 earthquake that devastated Sichuan province. Over 200 torchbearers will carry the flame across the city, 12 of them Muslim women.

A Uighur boxer started the relay and another torchbearer performed a traditional Uighur dance during her turn Beijing's way of showing it is sensitive to the region's culture. But authorities also were strictly monitoring the event, with armed police patrolling Urumqi's Muslim quarter on Monday night and sniffer dogs checking the 7.8-mile (12 kilometer) route through the city.

Roads surrounding the route were closed early Tuesday and only hand-picked bystanders with credentials were allowed to watch from the streets.

All buildings and hotels were told to keep their windows closed during the day to prevent unwanted displays of defiance. "On the day of the relay, over 100,000 chosen citizens will be shouting and cheering on the streets," Li Guangming, party secretary of the Xinjiang Sports Administration, was quoted as saying in Monday's Xinjiang Daily newspaper. "However, given that too many people will cause the rise of unsafe elements, we suggest that everybody else watch the relay live on TV at home." The Urumqi Evening News listed suggestions for behavior during the torch relay. "Do not shout slogans that undermine the image of the nation or of the city," urged one. "Respect the national flag and flags with the Olympic torch logos," said another. During its three-day trip, the torch will go on to the far western city of Kashgar, once a stop on the ancient Silk Road of China, and two other cities in the region before moving to Tibet. Before it returns to Beijing on Aug. 6, two days ahead of the opening ceremony for the games, the Olympic torch will have crossed every region and province of China, and a separate torch reached the summit of Mount Everest early last month.

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