Olympic torch run has sparse Pakistani crowd, tight security
Thursday, April 17, 2008
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- Runners carried the Olympic flame around the outside of a sports stadium Wednesday -- an invitation-only event in front of an elite, sparse crowd with heavy security to deter any anti-China protesters or terrorist attacks.
Clearly worried about the possibility that the high-profile ceremony might be disrupted, thousands of police aided by explosives-sniffing dogs stood guard as Pakistan's pro-China government ensured a trouble-free stop on the torch's global tour toward Beijing.
Televised live -- the only way the general public could watch -- the relay of Pakistani and Chinese torchbearers looked almost like a practice run as they jogged on access roads around the perimeter of Jinnah Stadium, Islamabad's main sports complex.
President Pervez Musharraf, fresh from a six-day trip to China, presented the Olympic flame to the first runner, then joined a raft of school children on reviewing stands.
"I would like the people of China, who are our closest friends, to know that we stand with you and support you in this glorious event you host for the entire world," Musharraf said in an address.
The original plans for carrying the torch along a nearly two-mile route from the white-marble Parliament in Pakistan's capital were changed.
Col. Baseer Haider, an army official helping organize the event, said the route was changed because of the "overall security environment" and the risk of bad weather. A violent hailstorm hit Islamabad on Tuesday, but the weather was fine Wednesday.
Police, many carrying guns, surrounded the stadium, where soldiers manned the main gate and checked vehicles with sniffer dogs. Only guests with invitation cards issued by the Pakistan Olympic Association were being allowed in.
"There is absolutely no chance of any trouble, any protest against it," said event coordinator Mohammed Yahya from the Pakistan Olympic Association.
A plane carrying the torch from Oman landed at the military section of Islamabad airport amid tight security early Wednesday.
About 60 Pakistani athletes took turns carrying the torch on the grounds of the stadium. A display of folk music and dancing were scheduled afterward.
The Pakistan Olympic Association urged broadcasters using state TV coverage of the torch to avoid "negative comments" and make "no mention" of the conflict in Tibet.
Pakistan has strong and long-standing defense and economic links with China. Both are rivals of neighboring India.
The torch's stops in Kazakhstan, Russia, Argentina, Tanzania and Oman have been trouble-free.
However, rioting in two Pakistani cities in the past week has raised tension in a country permanently on guard against attacks by Islamic militants based along its border with Afghanistan. Chinese workers were targeted in two deadly attacks last year.
"We have to take care that there is no infiltration by some elements who are bent on disrupting our understanding and great relationship," Musharraf said in China on Monday.
The turmoil over the torch relay and the growing international criticism of China's policies on Tibet and Darfur have turned the Beijing Olympic Games -- which begin Aug. 8 -- into one of the most contentious in recent history.
The flame travels on Thursday to India, home to nearly 100,000 Tibetan exiles including the Dalai Lama. Thousands of police have been deployed there to deter chaotic protests.
Associated Press writers Zarar Khan in Islamabad, Pakistan and Gavin Rabinowitz in New Delhi contributed to this report.