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Destination Canberra: will the Olympic torch cause a flare-up?

April 24, 2008

Farah Farouque, Chris Hammer and Brendan Nicholson
April 24, 2008

THOUSANDS of Chinese from Melbourne and other parts of the country will
arrive in Canberra this morning to support the local leg of the troubled
Olympic torch relay.

In a mass display of Chinese nationalism rarely seen in Australia, an
estimated 3000 people — mostly students — piled into 50 buses at Telstra
Dome last night for the overnight journey to the national capital.

Vowing to counter what they say has been a slur to China's pride, the
torch supporters sought to allay any fears of clashes with pro-Tibet
protesters.

"We are not going to Canberra to protect the torch — we can't touch it —
we are going there to celebrate the torch," organiser Bin Hua said
before departing.

Pro-Tibet protesters also sought to reassure organisers that there would
not be a repeat of the violence seen on earlier legs of the relay,
particularly in London and Paris. "We are going to be loud and protest,
but they will definitely be peaceful," Tibetans in Australia spokeswoman
Tsering Deki said.

As the protesters and torch supporters mobilised, Chinese and Australian
officials clashed in Canberra over the contentious issue of who will
shield the torch in the event of trouble.

With less than 24 hours to today's relay, confusion reigned at a media
conference as the two sides awkwardly disagreed over the role of China's
torch "attendants".

Just when it seemed Beijing had acceded to Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's
insistence that Australians handle all the security, a senior Chinese
Olympic official reignited the controversy.

"These runners should be trained security personnel with the ability to
cover and evacuate the torch bearers in the case of an emergency,"
Beijing Organising Committee spokesman Qu Yingpu told the media.

Mr Qu insisted his information was accurate, as he was reading from the
technical manual for the Olympic relay.

His comments contradicted those of ACT chief police officer Mike Phelan,
who moments before had told the same media conference that the federal
police would provide 100% of the security required.

When journalists tried to question Mr Qu further, ACT Chief Minister Jon
Stanhope interrupted to reassert his position, saying the Chinese
official's remarks "have not been accepted by the ACT Government and are
not endorsed by the Commonwealth or the ACT Government or the ACT police".

Swimming great Ian Thorpe, who will be the final torch bearer in
Canberra, used the media conference to make an appeal to protesters. "I
hope it's a peaceful protest and (there's) respect that this is the
Olympic flame and it stands for a lot more than just the situation in
China," he said.

Protests were already in swing yesterday, with the unfurling of a
pro-Tibet banner in Sydney, and a peaceful candlelight vigil last night
outside the Chinese embassy in Canberra, involving about 150 Tibet
supporters.

Four people were charged after a banner protesting human rights abuses
in Tibet was unfurled over the iconic Coke sign in Sydney's Kings Cross.
The banner read "Enjoy compassion, always Tibet" in the same script
style as Coke.

Earlier, the torch arrived at Canberra's Fairbairn RAAF base at 7.50am
aboard the red and white "flame plane". Aboriginal elder Auntie Agnes
Shea handed Chinese Olympic official Xiaoyu Jiang a traditional
Aboriginal message stick inviting the people of the Olympic host country
to place their footprints on her Ngunnawal tribe's country.

The flame, safe in a lantern, was carried off the aircraft along a red
carpet by Mr Xiaoyu who then presented it to Ms Shea.

The convoy surrounding torch bearers will stretch for about a kilometre
and include six cars, six motorbikes, four buses, a media van and an
ambulance. Police confirmed that the relay will start at Reconciliation
Place by the shores of Lake Burley Griffin around 8.45am, before the
torch is rowed across the lake.

But they said the remaining 16-kilometre route might be changed with
little or no notice depending on protests.
CTC National Office 1425 René-Lévesque Blvd West, 3rd Floor, Montréal, Québec, Canada, H3G 1T7
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