Olympic torch relay cut to one day in Tibet

China has scrapped its original plans for a three-day Olympic torch relay tour of Tibet and will send the flame there just for one day this weekend, a Beijing Olympic official said Wednesday.

Zhu Jing, a spokeswoman at the Beijing Games organising committee, said the decision to cut short the relay and run it through the Tibetan capital Lhasa on Saturday was taken following last month's earthquake in Sichuan province.

"Following the earthquake on May 12, BOCOG has announced adjustments to the domestic legs of the torch relay," Zhu said.

"The Tibet leg of the relay will be on June 21, with the relay taking place in Lhasa."

The torch was originally scheduled to tour Tibet for three days from June 19 to 21 as part of its long international journey to the Games being hosted by the Chinese capital in August.

The news came as the official Xinhua news agency said foreign tourists would be allowed back into Lhasa "very soon", quoting the city's vice mayor Chen Zhichang.

A firm date would be announced after the end of the Tibet leg of the torch relay, it said, but it was unclear whether other parts of the Himalayan region would also be re-opened to foreign travellers.

Tourists were banned following anti-Chinese government riots that erupted in the city on March 14.

Exiled Tibetan leaders say 203 people died in a government crackdown on the unrest.

China has reported killing one Tibetan "insurgent" and says "rioters" were responsible for 21 deaths.

The torch is currently travelling through Xinjiang, a largely Muslim region in China's northwest, on a three-day, four-city tour scheduled to end Thursday.

The stops in Xinjiang and the Tibetan regions of China are regarded as the most sensitive of the domestic relay route, which runs for thousands of miles (kilometres) over three months through every part of the country.

China accuses Muslim separatists in Xinjiang of plotting terrorist attacks on the Games and stepped up security in the region ahead of the relay.

Tibetans are also accused of targeting the Olympics following the crackdown in Lhasa.

Despite the unrest China stuck with its original plan to take the torch relay to the top of Mount Everest on May 8 using a separate flame from the one used on the relay route through the rest of the country.

The ascent took place under tight security and triggered protests from exiled Tibetan groups who said it was a provocation and politicised the torch relay.

China's rule over Tibet was a major rallying cry for protesters who dogged the torch's month-long global journey in April before it came here.

Pro-Tibet activists have argued that the leg in Lhasa should be cancelled due to the unrest.

New York-based Human Rights Watch said Chinese authorities were using the relay as a propaganda tool and had been carrying out arbitrary arrests to prevent protests during the relay.

"It is irresponsible for the Chinese government to deliberately send a torch into a powder keg, and the IOC (International Olympic Committee) and Olympic sponsors should ask Beijing to cancel this part of the relay," the group said in a statement.

BOCOG said that 50 journalists from 31 news organisations would be allowed to cover the relay in Lhasa, which has been off limits to foreign reporters and tourists since the crackdown.

"We will make proper arrangements for media coverage of the relay in Lhasa," said Zhu.

She declined to say whether scrapping the original three-day torch leg was connected to security fears in the Himalayan region following the unrest.

"The adjustment to the Tibet leg of the torch relay is because of the earthquake, which has caused us to make several changes to the original route," said Zhu.

The torch is then due to pass through neighbouring Qinghai, which also has a sizeable ethnic Tibetan community, from Sunday to Tuesday, Xinhua reported, quoting Qinghai Sports Bureau head Feng Jianping.

Copyright © 2008 Agence France Presse (AFP)

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