Olympic torch cruises through Buenos Aires

The Olympic torch, a magnet for anti-China protests, cruised smoothly under heavy guard through Buenos Aires on Friday with nothing more serious than a couple of tossed water balloons threatening the flame.

The uninterrupted relay along Buenos Aires’s streets and docks contrasted with the chaos over the past week in San Francisco, London and Paris where protesters tried to snuff out the flame and organisers extinguished or hid the torch to keep it safe.

The torch, touring the world ahead of the Olympic Games in Beijing in August, has drawn protests against China’s policies, in particular its crackdown last month on unrest in Tibet.

In Buenos Aires, the biggest crowds gathered to watch the torch pass the city’s obelisk monument. Enthusiastic on-lookers taking pictures with their cellphone cameras outnumbered activists protesting China’s rule of Tibet.

“We’re really happy to have pulled it off,” a relieved Francisco Irrarrazabal, the city’s deputy sports secretary, said as the torch relay wrapped up.

Police kept small groups of pro- and anti-China protesters apart where they gathered in front of Argentina’s pink presidential palace and at other points along the 13,8km route.

After the first stretch through the streets of a riverside neighbourhood, torch bearers carried the flame on to a shell and rowed it down the Puerto Madero docks, which are lined with expensive restaurants and bars.

Back on land, a ring of Chinese guards dressed in blue ran in formation around each torch bearer. Police on all-terrain vehicles ringed the guards and were surrounded by a motorcycle squadron.

Chinese policies

“It’s not China that is organising the Olympics, it’s the Communist Party, to show a harmonious country, to say that all Chinese are happy, that they respect human rights.
But it’s exactly the opposite,” said Alberto Peralta, who joined the protests against China’s human rights and Tibet policies.

Beijing, which views the Olympics as an opportunity to showcase its growing influence on the world stage, has strongly condemned the torch protests, blaming Tibet’s spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, and his followers.

“The protesters are a political group that want to destroy [China]. The [Olympics] are not for protesting; it’s something nice for everyone. People shouldn’t oppose them,” said Lin Yonggui (25), a Chinese citizen who has lived in Argentina for 13 years and was among the pro-China groups on the street.

China supporters at the march dressed in coordinated red jackets.

Buenos Aires had braced for potential violence, with 1 500 coast-guard officers, 1 200 police and 3 000 city workers ready to help keep order.

“Obviously we can’t ignore the thing people are protesting about. It’s an issue that must be addressed, but we can’t let it drown out this party which is about sports,” said tennis star Gabriela Sabatini before she was handed the torch to carry it on the last leg of the Buenos Aires relay.

The torch heads next to Tanzania, where Kenyan Nobel Peace Prize laureate Wangari Maathai has pulled out of the relay.

Calls have intensified in recent days for world leaders to boycott the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games in August.

Beijing Olympics organising committee chief Liu Qi said on Friday that organisers were working to avoid more chaotic scenes in the remaining legs of the torch relay.—Reuters

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