Argentinians protest Olympic flame relay

Argentinians protest Olympic flame relay

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) — Argentine runners relayed the Olympic torch past fenced-off protesters on Friday, as hundreds of China supporters in red windbreakers tried to reverse weeks of bad publicity for the host of the Summer Games.

Activists opposing China's human rights record unfurled banners and promised "entertaining surprises" but pledged to keep their demonstrations peaceful after protests marred stops in London, Paris and San Francisco.

Hundreds of spectators cheered as Chinese delegates wearing Argentina's blue-and-white lit the torch from a lantern that has carried the flame from the site of the ancient Olympic games in Greece.

Mayor Mauricio Macri held the slender aluminum torch aloft, then passed it to three-time Olympic windsurfing medalist Carlos Espinola, who jogged into Buenos Aires streets flanked by Chinese bodyguards. Heavyset police from Argentina's navy huffed to keep up.

A sea of about 500 China supporters in red windbreakers handed out by organizers waved banners and denounced what they called political interference in the ceremony.
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"We are here to celebrate Olympics!" said Shao Long Chen, a 19-year-old Chinese immigrant. "It's a great source of pride for us that the Olympics are being held in Beijing and that the torch is passing through Buenos Aires."

As for the pro-Tibet protesters nearby, he said: "They're using sports to deliver a political message, and that's not right."

A few dozen China supporters in red shirts rallied outside the presidential palace in favor of the Beijing Olympics.

Human rights groups said their protests will be peaceful, and pledged not to try to grab the torch or put out the flame.

"We do not want confrontations," said Falun Gong member Liwei Fu.

But after protests marred earlier torch stops in Paris, London and San Francisco, Argentine officials scrambled to avoid trouble.

"We think it's fine if there are protests, but we will accept them only if they are peaceful," said sports official Francisco Irarrazabal. "We hope there will be no physical aggression."

Protesters say China doesn't deserve to host the Olympics because of its human rights record, its harsh rule in Tibet and its friendly ties with Sudan.

Liu Qi, head of the Beijing organizing committee, told senior International Olympics Committee officials in Beijing that additional steps had been taken to protect the flame, "and we're very confident and comfortable with that," IOC spokeswoman Giselle Davies said.

In Buenos Aires, about 1,300 federal police, 1,500 naval police and 3,000 traffic police and volunteers were deploying along the 8½-mile relay route — enough to ensure security "without going to the extreme that nobody will be able to see the torch," Irarrazabal said.

The Olympic flame, in an ornately decorated lantern, was being protected by Chinese guards. The torch was quickly hustled off the plane on its arrival from San Francisco on Thursday, as officials canceled a planned photo opportunity on the tarmac.

Guards loaded the lantern onto a bus and rushed away to a secret location, escorted by wailing police cars and an ambulance. Local security officials wouldn't say where it was headed.

"That's a state secret," Irarrazabal quipped.

The torch was to emerge for a nearly three-hour relay through Buenos Aires streets. Organizers said the event would begin with a tango performance and a torch-lighting ceremony on a waterfront canal. Argentine Olympic rowers would then carry the torch on racing boats down a canal before handing it off to the first of 80 runners.

The relay route passes by the pink Government House and the iconic Obelisk, a traditional protest spot, and ends at an equestrian club with Argentine tennis great Gabriela Sabatini as the last runner.

Weather could complicate the Argentine relay. Forecasts called for plunging temperatures and afternoon rain storms in the early Southern Hemisphere autumn. Organizers assured that the aluminum torch, fired by propane, wouldn't go out in a storm — but could be put on a bus in the event of heavy rain.

Following the relay, the torch will be tucked aboard a Chinese jetliner and flown to Tanzania.

Many Argentines didn't want any of the controversy. Ana Maria Tassano, who runs a chic leather goods store, said people should simply be celebrating the Olympic torch.

"We have too many other problems to be worrying about the torch," she said.


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