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Olympic torch relay hit by protests in Japan
AFP[Friday, April 25, 2008 10:34]
Nagano, April 25 - Protesters Friday waved the Tibetan flag and denounced China's rulers as the Beijing Olympic torch came to Japan for the latest leg of a worldwide relay marred by demonstrations.

Japan, which is trying to repair uneasy ties with China, has promised tight security for the torch run on Saturday through the central mountain town of Nagano, the site of the 1998 Winter Olympics.

As torch-bearers rolled into Nagano, hundreds of Falun Gong supporters marched with a loud brass band through the city's streets to condemn China's leadership, which considers the spiritual movement an "evil cult."

"Stop the mass murder by the Chinese Communist Party," read a banner held by marchers in yellow Falun Gong T-shirts, who were closely watched by dozens of police.

Separately, at least two demonstrators unfurled Tibetan flags as the Chinese torch delegation stopped at a highway rest area on its way to Nagano, 180 kilometres (110 miles) north of Tokyo.

"I'm doing this to show that Japanese also support Tibet," one of the protesters told camera crews, as Chinese tourists accompanying the torch countered by waving their own national flag.

China wants the Beijing Olympics to symbolise the country's rising clout on the international stage and has been outraged by major protests during the torch relay, particularly chaotic scenes in London and Paris.

A chartered plane emblazoned with the slogan, "Journey of Harmony," flew the torch into Tokyo from Australia early in the morning.

"I am confident that the Beijing Olympics torch relay will be a success," said Cui Tiankai, China's ambassador to Japan.

He was handed the torch as Chinese embassy officials chanted in chorus, "Success to the Olympics, Fight, Beijing!"

An association of Chinese students studying in Japan said on its website it was organising buses for up to 2,000 people to head to Nagano to support the Olympics and "promote friendship between China and Japan."

The relay comes to Nagano at a time when Japan is trying to repair ties with China, which have remained uneasy due to the legacy of Japanese aggression in the 1930s and 1940s.

Chinese President Hu Jintao is due to travel to Tokyo in early May in only the second visit ever to Japan by a Chinese head of state, the culmination of two years of fence-mending efforts.

"We hope that the relay will be carried out in a peaceful manner and an atmosphere in which everybody can celebrate," Japan's chief government spokesman Nobutaka Machimura told a news conference.

Japan was abruptly forced to change the torch relay's course after a revered seventh-century Buddhist temple last week backed out of plans to be the starting point due to concerns over Tibet.

The Zenkoji temple instead plans to hold a Buddhist prayer ceremony to mourn victims in Tibet as the relay sets off from a parking lot.

Tibet last month saw the biggest protests in two decades against China's controversial rule over the predominantly Buddhist Himalayan territory.

Exiled Tibetan leaders say more than 150 people died in the Chinese crackdown on the demonstrations in their Himalayan homeland. China insists it acted with restraint and killed no one, while blaming Tibetan "rioters" for the deaths of 20 people.

Japan plans to shut out the public from all stopping points during the 18.7-kilometre (11.5-mile) relay and is reportedly deploying some 3,000 police.

"Police will do their best to ensure safety," said Shinya Izumi, Japan's top security official.

But he said Japan will not accept the involvement of China's specially trained crack unit of torch guards, whose brusque treatment of demonstrators have caused tension in previous relay legs.
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