Torch relay begins with heavy security

ALMATY, Kazakhstan Kazakhstan is the first stop on the 130-day world tour from Beijing and back again, leading up to the summer games in August.

Security was tight with thousands of policemen watching over the ceremony.

The torch is expected to be a magnet for protest on a variety of issues, ranging from human rights issues, to China's rule in Tibet.

About 4,500 policemen were deployed to guard the ceremony in Almaty, the economic capital of the oil-rich nation former Soviet republic, which has become increasingly dependent on its economic and political ties with neighboring China.

"The fact that the city of Almaty became the first point of the Olympic flame's run proves China's good attitude to Kazakhstan, and Chairman Hu Jintao's good attitude to me personally," President Nursultan Nazarbayev, dressed in a white sports outfit, said before his short symbolic torch run at a mountain resort. Thousands of spectators waved flags and cheered.

"We are grateful for such good feelings toward Kazakhstan," the 67-year old leader said.

A crowd greeted the chartered plane that brought the torch from Beijing. About 80 runners participated, including Kazakh athletes and government officials.

The cheering crowd mostly consisted of university students who were given a day off to participate in the festivities.

Several said that they sympathized with Tibetans who have been protesting against Chinese rule in recent weeks, prompting a harsh crackdown. But the students said they chose not to disrupt the ceremonies, fearing detention or expulsion from university.

Performers in national costumes, symbolizing the multiethnic population of Kazakhstan, participated in a lavish ceremony. Horse and camel riders evoked Kazakhstan's past as a major hub of the Great Silk Road.

Predominantly Muslim Kazakhstan borders China's western Xinjiang region and is home to a large community of Uighurs, a Muslim minority in western China whose language and culture are distinct from Han Chinese. Kazakh authorities have arrested some Uighur activists who advocate independence from Beijing and extradited some to China.

The 85,000 miles of torch relay is a record length, meant to showcase China's growing economic and political clout. But the Games have also focused attention on China over the protests in Tibet, the biggest challenge to Chinese rule in the Himalayan region since 1989.

David Douillet, a two-time French gold medalist in judo, said torch carriers in Paris will wear badges as a "distinctive sign" celebrating free expression. He did not say what will be written on them.

Mayor Bertrand Delanoe said city hall will display the banner because "Paris defends human rights all over the world."

Activist group Reporters Without Borders has promised to protest China's crackdown on recent demonstrations in Tibet.

Robert Menard, the group's president, condemned China as "the biggest prison in the world" and said his members would be protest in T-shirts emblazoned an image of the five rings of the Olympic logo transformed into five handcuffs.

Around 80 athletes will carry the torch over a 17.4-mile route that snakes round the Trocadero, down the Champs-Elysees toward City Hall, then crosses over the river Seine to the Left Bank past the National Assembly, before ending at the Charlety track and field facility.

The torch goes to Istanbul, Turkey on April 3; St. Petersburg, Russia on April 5; London on April 6; Paris on April 7 and San Francisco on April 9.

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