Politically charged torch relay route to include Taiwan, Tibet

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BEIJING - Organizers for the 2008 Beijing Olympics announced Thursday what will be the longest torch relay in the history of the games, tracing a route that covers five continents and makes politically sensitive stops in Taiwan and Tibet.

The head of Taiwan's Olympic Committee, however, said it would not participate in the relay, because it "downgraded" the island's sovereignty.

At a Beijing ceremony attended by senior members of China's ruling Communist Party and the International Olympic Committee, organizers said the route would cover 85,000 miles, last 130 days and reach Mount Everest.

"It will be a relay that will cover the longest distance and be most inclusive and involve the most people in Olympic history," said Liu Qi, the head of Beijing's Olympic organizing committee.

The relay is the latest grand plan associated with an Olympics that organizers and IOC officials have said should set a new standard for the games. But it also takes the games into politically tricky terrain.

Stops in Taiwan and Tibet, where Mount Everest towers, have generated controversy ever since Beijing telegraphed its intentions to include them on the route years ago. Taiwan has resisted Beijing's overtures - and sometimes threats - to unify after splitting amid civil war while China's often harsh 57-year rule over Tibet has been widely criticized.

Four American activists were detained by Chinese authorities Wednesday on Mount Everest after they unfurled a banner calling for Tibet's independence.

Beijing is hoping that the torch relay will bolster its claims over both territories.

In a compromise, however, the torch will pass from Vietnam's Ho Chi Minh City to Taipei, Taiwan's capital, and then to Chinese-controlled Hong Kong. The route allows Taiwan to say it is part of the international leg, while allowing China to blur the distinction between the domestic and international parts.

But Tsai Chen-wei, chairman of Taiwan's Olympic Committee, said less than two hours after the Beijing meeting that the island would not participate in the torch relay.

Taiwan's governing Democratic Progressive Party has long pushed for a torch route that would reflect Taiwan's separateness from China, from which it split amid civil war in 1949.

The disputes underscore the political agendas at work at many Olympics and, especially in Beijing, whose Communist government hopes to event will raise its stature at home and abroad.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao said politics should be kept out of the games, and that Beijing had the support of the country and of people around the world.

The relay, which is supposed to embody the Olympic values of friendship through sports, is a popular public-relations tool and the only contact most people have with the Olympics.

As with all Olympics, next year's relay will begin in Greece and wind across the globe before it is used to ignite the cauldron at the opening ceremony on Aug. 8, 2008, in Beijing's 91,000-seat Olympic Stadium.

Other stops announced Thursday include Paris; San Francisco; Buenos Aires, Argentina; Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania; Islamabad, Pakistan; and Pyongyang, the capital of politically isolated and belligerent North Korea.

The relay's signature moment is expected to be its ascent to the summit of Mount Everest, which straddles Chinese-ruled Tibet and Nepal.


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