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Olympic Torch Arrives in China's West

June 19, 2008

By The Associated Press
June 17, 2008

KASHGAR, China (AP) -- Tight security surrounded the Olympic flame
Tuesday as it began its journey through China's restive Muslim
western region of Xinjiang.

Security agents jogged on either side of torchbearers and hundreds of
police and military watched subdued crowds as the flame wound its way
through Xinjiang's capital of Urumqi. Although state media has warned
of the threat from separatists they claim are linked with global
terrorism, no disruptions were reported.

On Wednesday, the flame travels to the ancient Silk Road city of
Kashgar, where, unlike in Urumqi, immigrants from China's dominant
Han ethnic group are a minority.

On Tuesday night, Kashgar's streets were largely empty. Some streets
had been closed and shops along the relay route locked up early.

The Olympic flame has had a smooth run in China, undisturbed by
protests over Tibet and human rights that hounded parts of its
international tour. Yet the routes in Xinjiang and Tibet are the most
sensitive, a fact underscored by the precautions. The dates for the
Tibet relay have not been announced.

In Kashgar, near the border with Central Asia, Afghanistan and
Pakistan, the relay will start in 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.

Unarmed militia were deployed overnight along the torch route, which
was lined with Olympic banners.

"We're here to provide security," one militia member stationed with
four others at an underpass said in halting Chinese. "We will be here
all night." He refused to give his name, saying only "that's not
good" when asked why.

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.

"They've been working pretty hard at it," he said of the Chinese
government. "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."

Bequelin also dismissed the accusations of terrorism.

"Beijing has undercut its credibility by consistently labeling
criminal acts, anti-government violence and peaceful dissent as
terrorism," he said.

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.

The relay will start in Kashgar with a minute's silence, as every leg
has since the May 12 earthquake in Sichuan province that killed
nearly 70,000 people.

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.''

"If the circumstances are serious, they will be charged with leaking
state secrets," he said. The vague charge is one Beijing often uses
to detain dissidents.

Telephone operators at the Xinjiang and Urumqi public security
bureaus said officials were not available for comment Tuesday because
of the torch relay.

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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