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Olympic torch arrives in Australia ahead of protests

April 23, 2008 15:30 IST

The Olympic torch arrived in Australia's capital of Canberra on Wednesday, landing at an air force base under the type of tight security usually afforded visiting world leaders.

Hundreds of extra police have been called in to protect the torch, which will be carried through barricaded Canberra streets on Thursday, with authorities determined to avoid the chaos that disrupted the relay in Europe and the United States.

China had hoped the torch's journey would be a symbol of unity in the run-up to the Beijing Games, but the torch has drawn anti-China protests over human rights and Beijing's crackdown in Tibet, as well as pro-China demonstrations.

The plane carrying the torch arrived at the Fairbairn military base, where Aborigines will perform an indigenous welcome involving didgeridoo playing, as a small group of pro-Chinese supporters waved Chinese flags at the base's gate.

There was no sign of protesters.

Aborigine Bunja Smith, who will present officials with a traditional wooden message stick inscribed with the word "Peace", said Australia's Aborigines had a long history of repression and understood the need for protest.

"I believe in human rights ... (but) you can't give someone human rights by taking away someone else's human rights," Smith told Reuters.

"We are a people who have been repressed, but we ask the protesters to keep it a protest and not violent," he said.

"It's the Chinese people's right to have the Olympics. That's how we are looking at it -- in the spirit of sport."

Thousands of pro-Tibet supporters have promised to hold a peaceful rally during Thursday's relay, but thousands of Chinese students were also expected to rally in Canberra to support China and the Olympics.

Media reports said the Chinese embassy had hired 20 buses to bring supporters from Sydney and the southern city of Melbourne, an eight-hour drive from Canberra, to counter protesters.

Tibet supporters tried to disrupt the torch lighting ceremony in Greece in March, and disrupted the relay in London, Paris and San Francisco, prompting officials to boost security and shorten the torch relay in India, Malaysia and Indonesia.

On Tuesday, China cancelled media access to the departure of a second torch from Everest North Base Camp before an attempt to take it to the top of the world's highest mountain. Officials denied the cancellation was linked to unrest in Tibetan areas.

In Jakarta, the relay was confined to a heavily guarded stadium on Tuesday, while protesters held placards reading "Olympics and crimes against humanity cannot co-exist".

Australian organisers have changed the relay route to avoid the narrower streets in Canberra's city centre, keeping the event to wide avenues which have been fenced off to the public.

Organisers also dropped plans to run the torch past the Chinese embassy, near Australia's national parliament, instead closing off the surrounding streets due to concerns the embassy could become a flashpoint for protests.

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