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Olympic torch makes Latin American stop

April 11, 2008

From Associated Press – The Olympic torch dodged China foes in Europe and played hide-and-seek with crowds in San Francisco. Now the flame is making its only Latin American stop on a five-continent tour amid cloak-and-dagger secrecy after recent turmoil.

Handlers let no one publicly view the arrival of the flame in Buenos Aires, on its latest leg en route to Beijing. The lantern bearing the flame departed San Francisco and arrived at its second and final stopover in the Americas late Thursday on its 84,000-mile journey.

Argentina is billing Friday’s Olympic torch run as an easygoing street fiesta launched by a tango orchestra. But officials are worried enough about anti-China protests to mobilize thousands of police after protesters warned of a Buenos Aires “surprise.”

The torch was met by major demonstrations in San Francisco, London and Paris this week on its relay around the world. Thousands of protesters angry at China’s human rights record, its harsh rule in Tibet and its friendly ties with Sudan scuffled with police and attempted to block the torch’s passage.

Taken to its hideaway after the long flight from San Francisco, the flame is to emerge Friday afternoon for a nearly three-hour crossing of 8 1/2 miles of streets. Among 80 invited torchbearers, soccer great Diego Maradona remained in doubt, but former tennis star Gabriela Sabatini confirmed she’ll be the last runner.

Asked where the torch was being sheltered overnight, local security officials said even they did not know.

“That’s a state secret,” quipped a city sports organizer, Francisco Irarrazabal, one of the few to briefly glimpse the flame on the airport runway.

Turning more serious, he said security concerns were so tight after Paris and San Francisco that the Chinese delegation had requested that a planned photo opportunity on the airport tarmac with news agency photographers be hastily scrapped.

Meanwhile, Liu Qi, head of the Beijing organizing committee, met Friday with senior International Olympics Committee officials and tried to reassure them of further security steps in the wake of the protest-filled relays in San Francisco, Paris and London.

The organizing committee “today did underline to us that they have taken steps to make sure any risk, if there is any, is mitigated and we’re very confident and comfortable with that,” IOC spokeswoman Giselle Davies said.

Organizers in Argentina bravely boast of hopes of holding a warm South American-styled street fiesta. But the weather could bedevil the flame: forecasts call 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 event of heavy rain.

Buenos Aires organizers are anxious to show a brighter face than the city did during ugly 2002 street riots that marked a chaotic descent into a huge debt default of a past economic meltdown. Mayor Mauricio Macri urged protesters to stay away and not make “politics” of a sporting relay.

Authorities are deploying 1,300 federal police, 1,500 naval police and some 3,000 traffic police and volunteers – enough to ensure security “without going to the extreme that nobody will be able to see the torch,” Irarrazabal said.

Activists were already preparing protests. One, Jorge Carcavallo, unfurled a giant banner along the torch route reading “Free Tibet.”

Falun Gong member Axel Borgia said the spiritual movement banned by China would protest as well, but he wouldn’t give details. “The Olympic Games and crimes against humanity cannot coexist in China,” Borgia said.

Surprisingly, the torch relay has generated little of the attention garnered on other stops. Flame-snuffing incidents in Paris and protesters by climbers on the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco were buried deep inside most newspapers.

One capital shopkeeper, Thomas Briega, said he was paying attention to the relay and hoped the torch would get through Buenos Aires unscathed after the chaos elsewhere.

“I hope to God nothing bad happens,” he said.

Also on Friday, the chairman of Japan’s National Public Safety Commission said Japan will not accept Chinese security guards when the city of Nagano hosts the torch relay on April 26.

“We should not violate the principle that Japanese police will maintain security,” Shinya Izumi said at a press conference. “I do not accept the idea that they will run in Japan as they did in other countries.”

The Chinese runners, who wear bright blue tracksuits, ran to protect the torch in London and Paris, where chaotic torch protests interrupted the relay. Beijing has said only that the unit’s mission was to guard the flame.

Members of the unit were picked from special police units of the People’s Armed Police, China’s internal security force.

In Kenya, Nobel Peace laureate Wangari Maathai said Friday that she has pulled out of the torch relay’s Tanzania leg.

“From the very beginning I thought the torch will be a symbol of unity, peace and harmony, but as it moved around the world it has become a symbol of disunity. Then I decided to pull out completely,” Maathai, an environmentalist who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004, told The Associated Press on Friday.

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