Olympic flame lights up Sichuan

GUANG'AN - Crowds roared with delight and waved hundreds of Chinese flags in welcome as the Olympic torch began an emotional tour of Sichuan, three months after a powerful quake devastated large areas of the lush, mountainous province.

A minute of silence to honour the victims of the earthquake was held before the start of the run in Guang'an. The city is about 300km from the epicentre of the quake but was unscathed.

Thousands of people were on hand, some wearing orange, red and white T-shirts that said "Light the Passion, Share the Dream". They were gathered in a tourist park that honours communist patriarch Deng Xiaoping. Guang'an is his hometown.

A traditional drum performance was held before the first of the 189 torch bearers set off on the 7.3km route. The way was lined with thousands of people, many waving Chinese and Olympic flags.

"I'm so moved ... it's been a long wait. Even if we have to wait for hours it is worth while," said 28-year-oldgovernment worker Li Lei. He said he cried when the torch run started.

"For my parents and my family who were greatly affected by thedisaster, this is of tremendoussignificance. For the Olympic spirit and for Sichuan's spirit, this is a great thing," said Li, who is from An county near Beichuan in northern Sichuan, one of the hardest-hit areas in the earthquake.

Another man said the torch would help Sichuan rebuild. "The torch represents peace and harmony. The Olympic spirit will give us strengthto rebuild," said Qin Yi, also agovernment worker.

After Guang'an, the torch will wind through four more cities, including Mianyang, which was threatened by post-quake floods and provided shelter for tens of thousands of residents whose homes were destroyed by the magnitude-7.9 quake.

Sichuan is the last stop for the Olympic flame before it heads to Beijing for Friday's opening ceremony of the Games. The segment had originally been scheduled for mid-June but was postponed to support disaster-relief efforts.

The province has made swift progress since the May 12 disaster killed nearly 70,000 and left 5 million homeless. Reconstruction is well under way and new routines have been established in temporary settlements that have sprung up across the quake zone.

The Olympic flame seemed to further raise spirits. Families and friends came from hundreds of kilometres away to celebrate in Guang'an.

The streets of Guang'an echoed with shouts of "Go China!" and "Go Olympics!" as exuberant clusters of people marched through, waving flags and banners as cars honked their support. Many had stickers of the red and yellow Chinese flag on their faces and matching headbands around their foreheads. Vendors did brisk business selling balloons, Olympic-themed pins and T-shirts proclaiming "I [Heart] China."

"We have had so much sadness buried deep within us," said Lu Guangquan, 36, a volunteer from nearby Linshui county. "The torch relay will help it all burst from within us and dissipate."

With only five days to go before the Games, anticipation among Chinese is high. Many in Beijing are quoting the saying "Bai nian bu yu", which translates as "We've been waiting 100 years for this".

President Hu Jintao said amid final preparations that the Games would have an enduring benefit for China and leave a positive "spiritual legacy", adding: "The Chinese Government and the Chinese people have been working in real earnest to honour the commitments made to the international community."

Many at home as well as around the world hope that the Games will encourage China's 1.3 billion people to move towards greater political reform and democracy, to match years of strong economic growth that has transformed China into the fourth-biggest economy in the world.

Websites on sensitive subjects such as the bloody crackdown on democracy protests in Tiananmen Square in 1989 were accessible in the Chinese capital yesterday as the authorities lifted more internet restrictions in order to meet their Olympic Games commitments.

However, reporters questioned the International Olympic Committee's claim that the issue had been "resolved", pointing out that many sites - such as those sympathising with Tibetan groups - could still not be accessed.

Kevan Gosper, head of the IOC's press commission, described the changes as "a work in progress", but acknowledged that some restrictions would remain.

While some sites, including the BBC's Chinese-language service and Amnesty International, became available on Saturday, yesterday's changes went much further. English-language accounts of the 1989 protests on the BBC and Wikipedia sites were accessible from outside the Olympic press centre yesterday. Some less detailed Chinese-language material could also be found.

However, Wikipedia's "Chinese democracy movement" page was inaccessible, and websites on banned movement the Falun Gong, the Tibetan government in exile, the International Campaign for Tibet and Free Tibet were off limits last night.

One of the greatest threats to the prestige of the Games, the choking air pollution that normally afflicts the capital, appeared to be easing as last-ditch measures took effect.

In Beijing yesterday, the main topic was the blue skies that had replaced the more usual smog. The rare visibility and fine weather were put down to overnight rain and the belated impact of strict anti-pollution measures.

- OBSERVER, INDEPENDENT, AP

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