Security heavy for Olympic flame in China's Muslim region - East Valley Tribune: Nation / World

Security heavy for Olympic flame in China's Muslim region

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Posted: Tuesday, June 17, 2008 11:38 pm | Updated: 11:39 pm, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

KASHGAR, China - Hundreds of security personnel lined the streets to head off any disruption as the Olympic torch relay resumed Wednesday in western China's restive Muslim region of Xinjiang.

Black-gloved security agents jogged alongside the torch as it wound through the streets of Kashgar, an ancient Silk Road city near the borders with Central Asia, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Foreign journalists were not allowed along the route, where cheering bystanders shouted "Go China!" under sunny skies.

Also Wednesday, Olympic torch relay organizers said the flame will make a one-day stop in Tibet's capital of Lhasa on Saturday.

That leg has been shrouded in secrecy because of political sensitivities surrounding Tibet. The route has been criticized by Tibet activist groups who see it as an attempt by Beijing to symbolize its control over the Himalayan region.

China says it has ruled Tibet for centuries, although many Tibetans say their homeland was essentially independent for much of that time. Tensions were aggravated in March when protests against Chinese rule in Lhasa and other ethnic Tibetan areas throughout China led to a security clampdown in the region.

Tight security measures are expected for the Lhasa stop.

The Kashgar relay began near a downtown mosque with several speeches praising China's development over the last 30 years.

Hundreds of militia and police lined the torch relay route and bystanders, who were bused in from their work units, had to go through metal detectors.

Xinjiang officials accompanied foreign journalists on a bus to the relay and did not allow them to wander from the group. After the start of the event, the journalists were taken to the finish point - a square dominated by a giant statue of Mao Zedong, a reminder of heavy-handed Communist Party rule over the region since People's Liberation Army forces entered in 1949.

The torch has had a smooth run in China, undisturbed by the protests over Tibet and human rights that hounded parts of its international tour. Yet the Xinjiang leg and the one in Tibet are by far the most sensitive of the domestic relay - a fact underscored by the heavy security.

The flame began its journey through China's restive Muslim western region on Tuesday with a relay through Xinjiang's capital of Urumqig.

Although state media has warned of the threat from separatists they claim are linked with global terrorism, no disruptions were reported.

In Urumqi, police and troops watched thousands of onlookers, hand-picked by officials, as they waved the national flag and shouted "Go China!" from behind metal barriers. Police with dogs patrolled Muslim areas.

But overall, the mood was subdued compared with some of the enthusiastic crowds that greeted earlier legs.

One Uighur woman walking in the center of Kashgar said that while she thought the Olympics were good, "I have no interest in the torch relay." She said she felt uncomfortable giving her name.

Overseas activists have criticized China for using the Olympic torch relay to demonstrate its control over the restive areas, many of whose native residents reject claims that they have long been an integral part of Chinese territory and resent Han dominance over the economy and government.

Like Tibet, Xinjiang is a region with a culture and language distinct from that of the Han. Radicals among its main Turkic speaking Uighur ethnic group have for decades been waging a low-intensity struggle against Chinese rule. An unknown number have been sentenced to prison terms or death for allegedly espousing separatism or subversion.

On at least three occasions this year, authorities say they foiled plots by what they called Xinjiang separatists, including alleged attempts to crash an airliner and kidnap Olympic athletes and journalists.

The boost in security for the torch is a continuation of measures put in place since April 2007, said Nicholas Bequelin, an expert on Xinjiang with the Hong Kong-based Human Rights Watch.

"The security is very telling because it shows that ultimately, despite the fact that the government says the situation is stable and people are content, they know they don't have the loyalty of these people," he said, dismissing the accusations of terrorism.

Activist Dilxat Raxit, spokesman for the Germany-based World Uighur Congress, said in an e-mail Tuesday that authorities warned that anyone who voluntarily spoke to reporters "about the country's sensitive issues will be severely dealt with."

Before it returns to Beijing on Aug. 6, two days ahead of the opening ceremony for the Olympics, the flame will have crossed every region and province of China. A separate flame was carried to the summit of Mount Everest last month.

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