Olympic torch en route to Tanzania

The flame now heads to Africa after its travels in Argentina, which passed largely without incident. In Buenos Aires, pro-Tibetan activists staged peaceful demonstrations. Olivier Balch reports.


The Olympic torch was to emerge from an incident-plagued odyssey through Europe and the Americas Saturday for a low-risk albeit drastically curtailed African leg.

After stumbling through an obstacle course of pro-Tibet protests in recent days, controversy again preceded the flame's arrival in China-friendly Tanzania as the highest-profile member of the torch relay pulled out.

Kenya's Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Wangari Maathai cited concerns over China's role in conflict and human rights violations in Tibet, Myanmar and the Sudanese region of Darfur for her no-show during the only African stop in the torch's journey to Beijing.

"I have decided to show solidarity with other people on the issues of human rights in Sudan's Darfur region, Tibet and Burma," she told AFP on Thursday.

Defending worldwide protests over Tibet, Maathai said: "They are having an impact. That is why we are hearing about them. I hope the world and China will hear their voice."

While no known pro-Tibet rallies were planned in Dar es-Salaam on Sunday, the initial 25-kilometre (15-mile) torch relay was shrinked to a two-hour five-kilometre (three miles) trail in the streets of the Tanzanian capital.

Dar es-Salaam Mayor Adam Kimbisa insisted that the celebrations were downsized "because there's a lot of rain".

"Of course there could be two or three madmen who would seek to disrupt the relay," he admitted, speaking to AFP on Friday.

He also said that all security precautions had been taken: "We are in charge and we shall ensure that torch relay in Dar es Salaam is a success."

United Nations Under Secretary-General and Executive Director of UN-HABITAT Anna Tibaijuka, a Tanzanian, defended the relay as a symbol of peace and predicted the torch would have a smoother run on Sunday.

"I don’t think that the same situation will happen here. Tanzanians are peace loving people and they are eagerly waiting for such a beautiful symbol of the torch, which unites people of different religions, different ethnic origin, different political systems, cultures and languages," she said.

A statement from the Chinese embassy in Dar es-Salaam also attempted to defuse any risk of the international outcry over Tibet reaching the coast of the Indian Ocean.

"We have noticed that the torch relay in some cities encountered disruptions ... But we believe that the Olympic torch relay is the journey of peace, friendship and harmony and it should not be subjected to political manoeuvre."

Tanzania, long a socialist country with close ties to the eastern Communist bloc, enjoys excellent relations with China since diplomatic ties were established in 1964.

The Asian giant, which has an aggressive economic policy on the mineral-rich continent, is a major investor in the east African nation's fledgling economy.

Bilateral trade stood at 794 million dollars in 2007, close to a 50 percent increase from the previous year.

President Jakaya Kikwete is currently on a four-day state visit to China and the flame will be met at the airport by Prime Minister Mizengo Pinda late Saturday before flying out to its next stop in Oman less than 24 hours later.

Whatever happens in Tanzania Sunday, it appears too late for China to restore its hopes of winning international prestige by sending the torch through 135 cities on five continents ahead of the August 8 opening of the Olympic Games.

The early stages have been overshadowed by demonstrations against Beijing's repression of protests in the Himalayan region of Tibet, making Western governments -- and many Olympic sponsors -- uneasy.


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