BEIJING: China enforced sweeping security measures across Beijing Friday to protect the Olympic opening ceremony, deploying thousands of armed police and locking down areas of the city center.
The streets of the Chinese capital were unusually quiet as many of the city’s 17 million residents stayed at home after the Beijing authorities declared a public holiday to mark the auspicious start of the 16-day Games.
More than 100,000 police, armed forces and “public order volunteers” have been called in to scout for any trouble in the city during the Games, amid fresh warnings of terror attacks from Islamic separatists.
A ring of steel has been thrown around the Olympic venues which are protected by rows of police, tall fences, surveillance cameras and anti-aircraft missile batteries.
On the main roads approaching the Olympic venues in the north of the city, new police checkpoints had been thrown up overnight and only local residents and tickets holders were being allowed to pass.
Beijing airport was set to shut down just ahead of the 8:00 pm (1200 GMT) start of the ceremony at the Bird’s Nest stadium to be attended by world leaders such as Chinese President Hu Jintao and US counterpart George W. Bush.
“We have spared no effort in terms of security, in terms of making a safe Games,” Wang Wei, vice president of the Games organising committee told reporters. “Security forces have been reinforced.
“Nevertheless we want to make the Games pleasant and relaxed because it is a festival for people to come over to the Games. We have to strike a balance.”
The show of force was most acute at Tiananmen Square, where heavy deployments of armed and regular police closed down the huge square and surrounding streets around the Forbidden City.
At Tiananmen, one of China’s most politically sensitive sites where the military crushed pro-democracy protests in 1989, police vans with loudspeakers ordered several thousand passers-by and tourists out of the area.
“It is too bad we couldn’t go on the square,” said Shen Shaolong, 45, a Chinese tourist from the eastern province of Shandong. “We wanted to take pictures at Tiananmen Gate, but this is not surprising, China is like this.”
Shen said the bus carrying his family into Beijing had been stopped and searched three times on the approaches to the city.
But despite the heavy security, the atmosphere remained upbeat.
“This is my son’s first time to come to Tiananmen Square,” said Xiao Jin, from Chengdu, capital of southwest China’s Sichuan province.
“It is not easy for China to hold the Olympic Games, so we thought that we should not miss this chance to bring him here,” she told AFP.
China has said repeatedly in the build-up to the Games that radical Muslim separatists from the northwest Xinjiang region have been plotting to attack the event.
A separatist group claiming to represent the Muslim rebels made a new video threat Thursday which followed an attack earlier in the week in Xinjiang which left 16 policemen dead.
Channel News Asia