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Ahead of Olympic torch relay, India buttons lips on details
AFP[Wednesday, April 16, 2008 23:51]
NEW DELHI, April 16 — Thousands of Indian police prepared to lock down the heart of New Delhi as Tibetan activists ramped up protests ahead of what will be a short, heavily guarded leg of the Olympic torch relay Thursday.

Indian sports officials on Wednesday were tight-lipped about details of the torch's arrival and its itinerary hours before the Olympic flame was set to be flown in from neighbouring Pakistan.

Officials refused to even specify when the relay would begin amid fears that protesters, who are using the relay to demonstrate against China's human rights record and its rule in Tibet, would disrupt the run.

"It's in the afternoon," Suresh Kalmadi, head of the Indian Olympic Association, told reporters at a press conference to announce the names of 70 sports figures, entertainers and others participating in the run.

He also refused to say exactly when the flame would arrive.

"It is reaching Delhi after it leaves Islamabad," he said. "It will be past midnight (1830 GMT)."

But Kalmadi insisted Thursday's run -- one of the most sensitive stretches of its global voyage, with India home to more than 100,000 Tibetan refugees -- would be a success.

"It will go very well; I have no doubt about that," he said. "We shall give a great torch relay."

Bollywood actors Aamir Khan and Saif Ali Khan, tennis player Leander Paes and officials from China's embassy in New Delhi were slated to run in the relay, which had earlier been shortened from nine kilometers (six miles) to three kilometres for security reasons.

Kalmadi insisted authorities had only taken "normal security measures" and said the public was welcome to watch from beyond police barricades.

"We are not afraid of any movement but we want the torch relay to be safe," he said.

Police on Wednesday manned yellow barricades leading to India Gate, the monument to slain Indian soldiers and the end point of the truncated run.

Green corrugated fencing obscured the sandstone arch and its surrounding gardens, where Tibetans ran a mock torch relay on Tuesday under the noses of police who were holding a security planning meeting there.

The relay ran into fresh trouble on Wednesday, with the city saying it would not send schoolchildren -- among the few members of the public invited to the event -- to attend the ceremony, NDTV news channel said.

No explanation was given for the decision, which meant the spectators would largely be the estimated 15,000 policemen lining the road from the presidential palace to India Gate.

Some 20 Chinese guards will also protect the flame, according to reports, but Kalmadi said only two "torch attendants" would accompany it.

According to Chinese state media, the "torch attendants" are specially trained paramilitary police. They came under fire for their brusque tactics against demonstrators in Paris and London.

Traffic will be banned around the New Delhi torch route, the Metro will be shut down and government offices will close during the run, effectively paralysing the city centre.

Tibetan groups were meanwhile ratcheting up protests.

About 50 protesters ran past the Chinese embassy on Wednesday morning brandishing Tibetan flags before being hauled away by police.

Some 3,000 campaigners will be on the streets on Thursday, according to members of Tibet's parliament-in-exile who are organising an alternative torch run and sit-in near India's parliament.

India is home to the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader who fled to the country after a failed 1959 uprising against Chinese rule in his homeland, as well as several pro-independence Tibetan groups.

"We will have a parallel peace run," Youdon Aukatsang, a Tibetan parliament member, told AFP. "Our torch will be a symbol of our non-violent, peaceful struggle. It is not our plan to disrupt the Olympic torch."

But other protest groups said they will try to breach the torch's security.

Dhondup Dorjee, vice-president of the pro-independence Tibetan Youth Congress, said: "Chinese armed guards will be guarding the torch. We will go as close as possible and ask them to shoot us down."

The Dalai Lama's government-in-exile, which is based in the Indian hill town of Dharamshala, has urged protesters to be "non-violent and peaceful."
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