June 16, 2008 / 12:08 PM / 11 years ago

China warns spectators off Xinjiang torch relay

URUMQI, China (Reuters) - Authorities in China’s troubled far-western region of Xinjiang are telling people who want to watch the Olympic torch as it passes through the area to stay at home and tune into the television instead.

In other parts of China spectators have thronged streets to get a glimpse of the torch relay, but in Xinjiang they have been banned from climbing trees or collecting on bridges under which the flame will pass, state media said on Monday.

The steps are a measure of the sensitivity which surrounds Xinjiang, an oil-rich border region which is home to the Muslim Uighur people. Beijing blames some Uighurs for a series of attacks in the name of agitating for an independent state.

“Considering that too many people will cause a lack of safety, we are recommending that everyone watches on the television from home,” the official Xinjiang Daily quoted the Communist Party boss of the region’s sports administration, Li Guangming, as saying.

“The government expects tens of thousands of people will shout encouragement on the streets who have come in groups with their work units,” Li said.

The torch, whose progress around the world had been dogged by anti-Chinese protests, is to be paraded through Xinjiang’s regional capital Urumqi on Tuesday before heading to the mainly Uighur city of Kashgar, not far from the Pakistan and Afghanistan frontier.

A three-day tour of Tibet was supposed to precede this leg but the schedule was altered after a three-day suspension for the Sichuan earthquake. A curtailed trip to the Himalayan region will now follow the torch’s passage through Xinjiang, organisers said.

TIGHTENING GRIP

Xinjiang is home to 8 million Uighurs, many of whom resent the growing presence and economic grip of the Han Chinese. The government insists only a tiny minority support the separatists.

On Monday soldiers and police sealed off and patrolled Urumqi’s main square, where Tuesday’s torch procession will start.

In the mainly Uighur bazaar area there were no obvious signs of the Chinese flags or Olympic paraphernalia being sported by Han Chinese residents in other parts of the city in preparation to welcome the torch.

“I heard that they are going to run the torch tomorrow, but I don’t know any other details,” said Kerbanjan, an ethnic Uighur.

Newspapers warned that “uncivilised behaviour” would be “appropriately dealt with”.

“Do not shout slogans that damage the image of the nation or of the city,” the Urumqi Evening News said, outlining a long list of behaviour that was similarly banned, including not taking pets along to look at the spectacle or setting off fireworks.

Foreign reporters covering the event have likewise been warned to behave in the event of a protest along or near the route, euphemistically referred to as a “sudden incident”.

“If foreign reporters cover a sudden incident, they will be subject to site safety management instructions and ... should follow the advice of security personnel on the spot,” a handbook reads, without elaborating.

China claims to have cracked at least two Xinjiang-based terror plots this year, one involving an attempt to blow up an aircraft flying to Beijing and another to kidnap foreigners and carry out suicide attacks during the Olympics.

Dilxat Raxit, spokesman for the exiled World Uyghur Congress, said China was using the Olympics as an excuse to further crack down on his people.

“Uighurs are still living in a culture of fear, facing persecution, marginalisation and assimilation that erode the very core of cultural identity, religious belief and economic rights of Uighurs,” he said in an emailed statement.

In Urumqi, a largely Han Chinese city, some Uighurs said they had no interest in seeing the torch.

“No, I’m not going,” said one fruit-seller who gave his name as Mohammed, waving his hand in front of his face. “I’m not interested in it.”

Additional reporting by Royston Chan

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