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Olympic torch doesn’t inflame in Argentina

Times Staff Writer

The protest-plagued Olympic torch relay proceeded smoothly Friday on its only stop in Latin America amid extremely tight security and relatively few demonstrators.

Several layers of police and other guards flanked torch-bearing runners as they carried the flame symbolizing the summer Beijing Games for more than two hours on an eight-mile course through the heart of the Argentine capital.

No serious violence was reported and there were none of the disruptions that marred relays in London, Paris and San Francisco. Thousands lined the route, often cheering the procession and holding up cell-phone cameras to snap photos.

Surrounding the 80 participating runners was a phalanx of Chinese guards decked out in blue-and white, the Argentine national colors.

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A festive atmosphere prevailed under cloudy skies, as workers left their desks to witness the spectacle and some tossed confetti down on the passing entourage from open office windows.

“It’s nice: It’s about sport,” said Oscar Alonso, a souvenir vendor. “I understand people’s complaints about China, but this was celebrating sports.”

A group protesting Beijing’s human rights record held a rally in the iconic Plaza de Mayo, facing the pink-hued Argentine presidential palace along the relay route. The protesters carried an alternative “human rights torch.”

Police in riot gear cordoned off the demonstrators and kept them apart from pro-China spectators.

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“People shouldn’t forget China’s lack of respect for human rights just because the Olympics are happening there,” said Paula Roldan, 24, one of a number hoisting “Free Tibet” signs.

A security detail of more than 5,000 included police, public employees and volunteers, officials said. The daily newspaper Clarin reported that the deployment was more than triple the number assigned to the often-rowdy soccer matches featuring the capital’s top rivalry, River Plate against Boca Juniors.

Among the spectators were many members of Buenos Aires’ large and growing Chinese immigrant community, who viewed the event as a source of cultural pride. Some donned red windbreakers and waved Chinese flags.

“I don’t think people should be mixing politics with sports,” said Yang Yi Wen, 24, a Shanghai native who said she came to Argentina with her family 12 years ago. “The Olympic Games are something that Chinese people have been looking forward to hosting for years. No one should be able to spoil that.”

Some onlookers expressed surprise that more protesters did not show up

“I really expected a lot of people to be out there screaming,” said Aurora Tamarelle, 20, a French tourist who watched the torch passing through downtown.

Massive and sometimes violent demonstrations focusing on Argentine human rights issues and other controversial matters regularly block the streets of this capital. But the Argentine activist community did not mobilize en masse against the torch relay.

“I thought this was something lovely to see,” said Mercedes Colonel, 46, a street vendor who traveled two hours by train and bus with her granddaughter, 11, to see the relay. “I don’t know much about the politics of China. But I thought this was very moving.”

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The Olympic torch relay is now scheduled to go to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.

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patrick.mcdonnell@latimes.com


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