KUALA LUMPUR (AFP) — The Olympic torch set off through the Malaysian capital Monday to rapturous cheers from Chinese supporters and tight security by police keen to avoid the disruption seen on earlier legs.
More than 1,000 police and other security forces were deployed on the route from the city centre to the iconic Petronas Twin Towers.
It was a party atmosphere as brass bands entertained the crowds gathered on Independence Square, which had been turned into a sea of red Chinese flags.
“It is a festive atmosphere here… and shows the good relationship we have with Beijing,” Olympic Committee of Malaysia president Imran Jaafar said.
The torch, symbol of the Beijing Games, is on the Asian stretch of a world tour that was severely disrupted in Europe and the United States by protesters complaining about China’s rule in Tibet and its human rights record.
Police in Kuala Lumpur were taking no chances, and swiftly intervened when pro-China supporters confronted a Japanese family waving a Tibetan flag.
An AFP reporter who saw the incident said a group of Chinese nationals set upon the family and their child, hitting them with inflated plastic batons and shouting: “Taiwan and Tibet belong to China.”
Police escorted the family to a station to check on their travel documents, senior police official W. Karthik told AFP.
More than 500 people gathered at Independence Square with numerous Chinese students wearing red and white T-shirts emblazoned with “One dream, one world, one China.” They cheered wildly when the relay began.
China’s communist rulers were banking on the Olympic Games to showcase the nation’s much-touted “peaceful rise” to power, but the torch relay that began in Greece last month has become a high-profile target for activists.
It follows a crackdown on violent protests in March against Chinese rule in Tibet, with exiled leaders saying 150 people were killed.
China says Tibetan “rioters” killed 20 people.
Protests in London, Paris and San Francisco led Jacques Rogge, head of the International Olympic Committee, to say the Games were in “crisis,” but since then Beijing has bluntly told him to stay out of “irrelevant” politics.
Hundreds of protesters were arrested in India and Nepal last week when the torch was carried through New Delhi, while a landmark Buddhist temple scrapped plans to host the launch of Japan’s leg in the mountain town of Nagano — it will now take place in a parking lot due to fears of further protests.
After Kuala Lumpur, the torch relay travels to Indonesia, Australia, South Korea, Japan and Vietnam before heading to China.
Authorities in Nepal have deployed security forces on their side of Mount Everest to prevent pro-Tibet protests when the torch is carried to the summit early next month.
Australia has beefed up security for Thursday’s relay in Canberra, which is expected to attract pro-Tibet groups and supporters of the Beijing Games.
Officials say nearly half the capital’s police force will be on duty.
Meanwhile in Shanghai, the visiting French Senate leader passed on a letter from President Nicolas Sarkozy to a wheelchair-bound Chinese athlete who was forced to protect the torch from pro-Tibet protesters during the chaotic April 7 Paris leg of the relay.
The protests have triggered a backlash in China. At the weekend, thousands of people demonstrated outside branches of the French retail giant Carrefour in several cities, angry at allegations — which the chain has denied — that it supports the Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama.
Tensions could be inflamed though by plans by city councillors in Paris to confer honorary citizenship on the Dalai Lama.