Police began an unprecedented security crackdown in Australia’s national capital, Canberra, on Wednesday to protect the Olympic flame from protests during the latest leg of the torch’s troubled journey around the world.
China had hoped the torch’s progress would be a symbol of unity in the run-up to the Beijing Games.
But at several previous relays the flame has drawn anti-China protests over human rights and Beijing’s crackdown in Tibet, as well as pro-China demonstrations.
”All of our planning to date has anticipated that there will be issues,” Canberra police commander Mike Phelan said. ”I’m very confident that we have enough resources in place,” he said.
The Australian relay is on Thursday, but pro-Tibet demonstrators have already beamed laser signs on to the iconic Sydney Harbour Bridge reading ”Don’t Torch Tibet”.
A group of Tibetan exiles on hunger strike ended a 70km march to Canberra on Wednesday and joined a candlelight vigil outside the Chinese embassy to protest against the torch relay.
”We have walked for three days without food and we will break our fast tonight at 10pm. The oldest, aged 65, was a former political prisoner and the youngest is 13, the daughter of political prisoners in Tibet,” their leader, Tenpa Dugak, said.
The flame, carried on an official Chinese Olympics jet, landed at an air force base in the capital under the kind of protection usually afforded visiting world leaders. Local officials said security on Thursday would exceed protection given to United States President George Bush’s visit in 2003.
Thousands of pro-Tibet supporters have promised peaceful rallies during Thursday’s torch relay, while thousands of Chinese students were expected to rally in support of China.
Tibet supporters disrupted the London, Paris and San Francisco relays, prompting officials to shorten the relay routes in India, Malaysia and Indonesia.
Australian organisers have dropped plans to run the torch past the Chinese embassy, near Australia’s national Parliament, fearing the heavily fenced mission could be a flashpoint.
Hundreds of extra police have been called in to protect the flame, which will be carried by 80 runners through 16km of barricaded streets.
Right to protest
Media reports said the Chinese embassy had hired 20 buses to bring supporters from Sydney and the southern city of Melbourne, an eight-hour drive from Canberra, to counter protesters.
”We’re in a democratic country. If people want to protest, that’s a matter for them, as long as they do it peacefully,” Olympic spokesperson Kevan Gosper said after watching the torch arrive.
Australia’s five-time Olympic gold-medal swimmer Ian Thorpe, who will run the final leg of the Canberra relay, said he also understood why people were demonstrating.
”I’d just like to think that if you are going to protest on issues like this, it shouldn’t be centred around a particular event,” said Thorpe.
Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd raised concerns about human rights in Tibet in meetings with China’s leadership in Beijing earlier this month, but said Australia recognised China’s sovereignty over Tibet.
Torch relay organiser Ted Quinlan said he did not expect clashes, while a spokesperson for China’s Foreign Ministry said she was confident the Canberra torch relay would be a success.
Phelan said the torch route, expected to start with a lake-crossing, would have contingencies in place if the expected protests turned violent.
He stressed Australian police alone would handle security after Beijing Olympic Committee spokesperson Qu Yingpu hinted Chinese attendants could step in, prompting hurried denials from city officials.
The chaotic scenes and perceived biased Western media coverage of the Tibet riots and the torch disruptions have sparked an outpouring of patriotic fervour among Chinese in and outside China.
Chinese internet users have rushed to send thousands of red national flags overseas to support the troubled torch relay ahead of the Olympics, state media said.
In Tokyo, where the torch travels after Australia, authorities planned to surround the flame with riot police and another 100 regular police in two rows, media said on Wednesday. — Reuters