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Olympic Torch Lands in Beijing For Start of Tour

Capital Under Tight Security In Attempt to Thwart Protests

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The Olympic torch was re-lit Monday in Beijing at an elaborate ceremony that signaled the start of a round-the-world relay that is expected to be a lightning rod for protests against China's policies and human rights practices. Video by AP
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By Maureen Fan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, March 31, 2008

BEIJING, March 31 -- Under heavy security, the Olympic torch was flown into Beijing on Monday to begin an around-the-world tour that was designed to symbolize peace and harmony but instead has become a lightning rod for anti-government protesters.

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The torch, encased in a secure van, arrived after 10 a.m. Monday by convoy at Tiananmen Square, which was closed to the public. It was met by President Hu Jintao and other members of China's Politburo, the foreign diplomatic corps and a cheering throng of 4,000 dancers and acrobats and retired state workers in uniform, waving flags and red-and-gold pompoms.

Liu Xiang, the men's 110-meter hurdles world champion, was to take the torch from Hu and run briefly to the Tiananmen rostrum to end the ceremony, which officials aired live on state television.

A chartered Air China plane, specially painted with Olympic symbols, brought the torch from Greece, where it had been formally handed over to mark China's assumption of responsibility for the Summer Games, scheduled to begin Aug. 8. The heavy security was intended to prevent protests of the sort that occurred last week in Greece.

After official speeches at the square, focal point of the 1989 democracy demonstrations and the site of joyous celebrations seven years ago when Beijing won its bid to host the Olympics, the flame was separated into two.

One part, headed to Mount Everest, will travel in a lantern capable of withstanding high wind and elevations; bearers will have a 10-day window in May to make an ascent. Two cameramen with state broadcaster CCTV have been training for more than two years to make the climb, organizers said.

The other part goes to Kazakhstan to begin the round-the-world tour. The two halves are scheduled to be rejoined in the Tibet Autonomous Region, where unrest continues despite a heavy police and paramilitary presence, hundreds of arrests and a general crackdown following deadly rioting in mid-March.

The torch relay is the longest in Olympic history, covering 85,000 miles across six continents in 130 days and offering ample opportunity for demonstrators to draw attention to their causes.

China had hoped the Olympics would showcase its economic progress and harmonious society -- a favorite catchphrase of President Hu Jintao -- but the recent unrest in Tibet has highlighted an ethnic and economic divide.

Largely peaceful monk-led protests in Lhasa on March 10 gave way to deadly rioting on March 14, with much of the violence directed at Han Chinese, who control government jobs and dominate business in Lhasa. The unrest quickly spread to other heavily Tibetan areas in the provinces of Gansu, Qinghai, Sichuan and Yunnan, where armed police were deployed to quell protests.

Chinese leaders blame the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, for sparking the riots in order to sabotage the Olympics. They describe the issue as a matter of law and order and have vowed to step up the "patriotic education" campaigns resented by many Tibetans because they force them to denounce the Dalai Lama as a separatist. Senior officials and state media have encouraged public condemnation of foreign journalists, who are still barred from traveling to Tibet and restive Tibetan-populated areas in neighboring provinces.

Following the crackdown in Tibet, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Czech President Vaclav Klaus said last week they would not travel to Beijing for the Games' opening ceremony.


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