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17-06-08, 10:14
Beijing Olympics 2008: Torch relay reaches Muslim west China


Allegra Stratton and agencies guardian.co.uk, Tuesday June 17 2008
Chinese authorities were on high alert today as the Olympic torch made its way to the country's Muslim communities, the next stop on its journey to the opening ceremony on August 8.

Security officials locked down the western city of Kashgar – a former trading post on the old Silk Road – shutting shops and putting police on every street corner. Soldiers and firemen patrolled the city's main square.

Kashgar is in the desert region of Xinjiang, which is oil-rich and home to 8 million Muslim Uighurs, a central Asian people who speak a Turkic language.

China says the Uighurs are responsible for violent attacks to try to force the secession of an independent state of East Turkestan. Beijing claims to have foiled at least two Xinjiang-based terror plots planned to disrupt the Olympics.

Human rights groups regularly criticise the Chinese authorities for exaggerating the threats it faces from Xinjiang to justify smothering peaceful protests by the Uighurs.

Xinjiang residents said the Chinese authorities were strictly managing the relay event. "Nobody is allowed to watch the torch relay tomorrow unless you are being organised by your work unit. I feel a lot of regret," said Chen Guangsheng, a Han Chinese resident of Kashgar who said her home was along the route.

"The police are coming to my house tonight to inspect it and to register everybody living there."

Chen said she was told windows must be closed and that residents were not allowed outside on their balconies during the relay.

The exiled World Uyghur Congress said the authorities had forced people in Kashgar to sign letters guaranteeing they supported the government. China has also removed at least 5,000 Uighurs ahead of the torch's arrival.

"They're crazy bringing [the relay] here," said a Hamid, an Uighur resident "It's their event, not ours. All we get is hassles."

In the backstreets there was no sign of Olympic propaganda or the flags that lined Kashgar's main thoroughfares. And while banners welcomed the torch in English and Chinese, there was little use of the Uighur language.

The torch relay to the games' opening ceremony in Beijing on August 8 was meant to be a symbol of national unity and pride for China, but its international leg was dogged by anti-government protests.

The Olympic flame is likely to pass through Lhasa this weekend, although organisers have yet to confirm the date or details of the route through the Tibetan capital, where anti-Chinese protests broke out in March.

Human Rights Watch said the International Olympic Committee should demand Chinese organisers cancel the Tibet leg. It said the government was using the relay as a "propaganda opportunity".

China blamed the riots on Tibet's exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, and his followers, whom they accuse of fomenting trouble to further their separatist aims and ruin the Olympics