April 29, 2008 / 10:14 AM / 11 years ago

Chinese cheer Olympic torch in peaceful Vietnam relay

HO CHI MINH CITY (Reuters) - Crowds of Chinese waved red national flags and cheered the Olympic torch in Vietnam on Tuesday, the last international leg of its harried voyage around the world.

Chinese people wave their national flag with the Vietnamese and Olympic flags while waiting for arrival of the flame of the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games at the airport in Ho Chi Minh city April 28, 2008. REUTERS/Kham

The relay in Ho Chi Minh City was completed as China on Tuesday jailed 30 people for last month’s riots in Tibet.

The relay has endured the most tortuous journey of its history, beset by trouble since protesters breached security at the torch-lighting ceremony at Ancient Olympia in Greece last month. Protesters have jostled the torchbearers in several places and denounced Beijing’s human rights record, especially in Tibet.

The relay in southern Vietnam was peaceful but, as in many other cities, took place under massive security.

Torch bearers were flanked and escorted by a security convoy of dozens of police motorcycles, cars and minivans, watched by thousands lining the streets during the night-time procession.

Young Chinese nationalists, some who live or work in Vietnam and others who travelled from China wore “we love China” and “we are proud to be from China” on white Beijing 2008 Olympics T-shirts.

They screamed as the torch passed by amid a cacophony of loud motorbike and car horns en route to a military stadium. There, young Chinese shouted “Go China” or “Come on China” in Chinese.

Vietnamese students waved the Vietnam national flag and cheered too. Some also held banners marking the April 30 Liberation Day in the Southeast Asian country and May Day.

There were no signs of disruption in the former Saigon, despite a call for demonstrations by overseas Vietnamese groups opposed to Communist Party rule.

The torch heads to China on Wednesday, to Hong Kong, beginning the 100-day countdown to the August 8 Beijing Games.

Last month’s Tibetan protests and the sympathy they engendered abroad have stoked the fires of patriotism in China that tend to flare when sensitivities about the country’s standing collide with international events.

The around-the-world torch relay has been dogged by anti-China protests that in turn prompted rallies by overseas Chinese, who are proud that their country is hosting the Olympics and of Beijing’s efforts to modernise Tibet.

OPEN TRIAL IN LHASA

A court in Tibet’s regional capital, Lhasa, announced the verdicts of the 30 people at an “open trial” attended by more than 200 people, state television said.

The terms ranged from three years to life in jail.

It was the first batch of sentences announced since the March 14 violence in Tibet and a Chinese crackdown that led to protests and disruption of the Olympic torch relay, most notably in London, Paris and San Francisco.

China has blamed Tibet’s spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, and his government-in-exile for plotting the riots, in which at least 18 “innocent civilians”, according to Beijing, were killed by Tibetan mobs in Lhasa last month.

South Korea is investigating violence at the relay in Seoul over the weekend.

Newspapers there ran angry editorials denouncing Chinese students who hurled rocks at groups criticising Beijing, charging into lines of police, beating pro-Tibet protesters and kicking an elderly man.

On Monday, North Korea mustered tens of thousands of people waving flags, plastic flowers and dancing in the streets for the first incident-free leg of the global torch relay.

In Hong Kong, about 3,000 policemen will guard the torch during its 8-hour relay.

In recent weeks, analysts say Hong Kong authorities have been under pressure from Beijing to tighten its immigration and security apparatus to smother any possible flare-up of trouble during the torch’s first touchdown on Chinese soil following its protest-marred global six-week tour.

Hong Kong blocked three pro-Tibet campaigners from entering the city on Tuesday and deported them, activists said.

Kate Woznow and Tsering Lama of the New York-based group Students for a Free Tibet, and Matt Whitticase of the London-based Free Tibet Campaign, were questioned at immigration and then put on a flights leaving Hong Kong, said Lhadon Tethong, executive director of the student group.

Over the weekend, authorities barred three Danish activists, including sculptor Jens Galschiot, from entering the city for “immigration reasons”. They had planned to protest against Chinese human rights violations during the city’s torch relay.

A senior official admitted the incident might have hurt Hong Kong’s free and open image, but said the city should be judged by its positive overall track record of allowing protests.

(For in depth coverage of the Tibet unrest, click here )

Additional reporting by James Pomfret and John Ruwitch in Hong Kong, Ben Blanchard and Nick Macfie in Beijing, and Jon Herskovitz and Jack Kim in Seoul

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