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High security for Olympic flame in western China
China Olympic Torch 4647146
Spectators cheer along the route of the Olympic Torch Relay, Tuesday, June 17, 2008, in Urumqi, Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, China's most western province.The torch started its relay route Tuesday through the restive region of Xinjiang amid cheering crowds and heavy security. - photo by Associated Press
    KASHGAR, China — 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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