Olympic torch makes its way through ancient Muscat amid tight security in Oman

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

MUSCAT, Oman (AP) — Thousands cheered and some danced with traditional daggers along the Olympic torch's path through Oman's capital Monday, a festive greeting that contrasted with disrupting protests elsewhere on the flame's global journey.

Under tight security, about 80 torchbearers ferried the flame down into the heart of this hilly Persian Gulf sultanate's capital, passing under historic stone arches and alongside the old souk, before winding along the edge of the Gulf coast against the backdrop of spectacular mountains.

The rare carnival-like atmosphere in tightly controlled Oman was a welcome respite for Olympic organizers seeking to avoid protests over China's human rights record that marked torch stops Paris, London and San Francisco.

Officials said they expected a smooth relay of the flame on the brief Middle Eastern leg of its 20-nation tour, adding that any attempt to disrupt the parade would be dealt with severely.

Oman, a Muslim country at the southern end of the Arabian peninsula with a booming tourism industry, has strong economic ties with China, a major importer of its oil.

The torch arrived from Tanzania and was received at Oman International Airport by Oman's sports minister early Monday. But officials waited for cooler evening weather before the festivities kicked off with the torch being lit by Muscat governor Sayyed Al Mutassim bin Hamoud Al Busaidy, and handed over to Sayyed Shihab bin Tariq Al Said, an adviser to Sultan Qaboos bin Said.

By early evening, thousands of Omanis and mostly Asian expatriates lined streets to watch athletes and other Omani celebrities carry the torch along Muscat's scenic waterfront. Torchbearers paused occasionally along the 12-mile relay route for performances by men in traditional Arab white robes, some with daggers tucked in their belts, dancing to the beat of drums.

Schoolchildren wearing white caps and T-shirts with the words "Beijing 2008" waved small red Chinese and Omani flags.

"I've never seen anything like it," said Naser Mustafa, an Omani who brought his 8-year-old son to watch the festivities. "I never expected so many people to come out, this is very rare in Oman."

Dozens of policemen were deployed along the torch route, where streets were closed off and parking was banned. An army helicopter hovered overhead.

"It's a great honor to have the torch in Oman," Habib Macki, vice chairman of the Oman Olympic Committee, said ahead of the opening ceremony.

He said Oman was chosen for the relay because of the "excellent relationship that goes back a long way between Oman and China and the strong economic ties that bind us."

Hours later, the festivities culminated with an elaborate show of fireworks and musical performances held at Muscat's Qurum National Park.

The Olympic flame, which began its worldwide six-continent trek from ancient Olympia in Greece on March 24, has been met with major chaos and disruptions. The recent relays in Argentina and Tanzania, however, were largely peaceful and without major incidents.

The turmoil over the torch relay and the growing international criticism of China's policies on Tibet and Darfur have turned the Beijing games — which begin Aug. 8 — into one of the most contentious in recent history.

The torch next goes to Islamabad, Pakistan, and then to New Delhi.

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