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Olympic torch heads off on world tour

BEIJING, April 1 – The Olympic torch headed for Kazakhstan Tuesday on the first leg of an epic world tour designed to drum up enthusiasm for the Beijing Games, but also certain to draw anti-China protests.

A chartered Air China plane took off at around 10:00 am (0200 GMT) carrying the torch from Beijing to the Kazakh city of Almaty, where the first leg of the relay will be run on Wednesday, according to the Beijing Olympic organising committee.

Sending the torch on its way with pomp and fanfare, China staged an elaborate ceremony in central Tiananmen Square on Monday attended by top leaders including President Hu Jintao and his number two Xi Jinping.

International Olympic Committee (IOC) chief Jacques Rogge, in a speech delivered to the gathering that was closed to the general public, said the torch would spread Olympic "magic" around the world.

President of the Beijing Olympics Organizing Committee Liu Qi (R) hands the Olympic torch to Chinese President Hu Jintao
©AFP – Peter Parks

But for pro-Tibet activists, human rights groups, and groups seeking to end the humanitarian crisis in Darfur, the torch relay presents an ideal protest platform.

Dubbed the "journey of harmony," the relay is the longest ever, lasting 130 days and covering 137,000 kilometres (85,000 miles), offering ample opportunity for demonstrations.

One likely issue is Tibet, whose government-in-exile says up to 140 people have died in a crackdown on recent anti-China unrest there, while Beijing puts the death toll at 20.

Rights groups are already focusing on the London leg on Sunday, then Paris on Monday and San Francisco, the only stop in the United States, next Wednesday, April 9.

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People holding Ticapitalfmnewn flags demonstrate in Lyon, France
©AFP – Jean-Philippe Ksiazek

Anne Holmes, acting director of the London-based Free Tibet Campaign, said feelings were running high ahead of the British leg.

"We will have a presence. Our plan is to do something peaceful to make our point," she said.

The relay is billed as the most ambitious of all time with the "high point" being an ascent of Mount Everest in May and several potential hotspots along the route, including a controversial Tibet leg in June.

Campaign groups are also planning protests along the 40,000 kilometre route in China itself, but officials here and in Tibet, where the torch is expected to be in mid-June, are confident there will be no security breaches, even during the ascent of Everest.

"To our knowledge, some separatists from within and outside China are seeking to sabotage the Olympic torch relay within Tibet," Baema Chilain, vice chairman of the Ticapitalfmnewn regional government, told Chinese reporters last week.

Graphic showing the route of the Olympic torch relay
©AFP Graphic

"We are confident and capable of ensuring the security of the relay and taking it to the top of the peak."

But outside China the situation will be different. Already protesters defied tight security to disrupt the torch-lighting ceremony in Ancient Olympia last week.

China branded the protests in Greece "shameful" and has put pressure on cities along the international route to ensure smooth progress of the torch.

In an editorial on Tuesday, the China Daily denounced all efforts to disrupt the event.

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"Sensational as they are, the calls to politicise the Olympics are a blasphemy against the Olympic spirit," it said.

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