Olympic torch relay comes to Macau by Guy Newey

The Olympic torch was set to be run through the gambling haven of Macau on Saturday, the final stop on the controversy-hit relay before it heads into mainland China, the AFP reported.

The torch was flown into the former Portuguese colony late Friday after it was paraded through neighbouring Hong Kong, where it was greeted with celebration, and few of the protests that have dogged its worldwide journey.

While few, if any, protests are also expected in Macau, organisers in the southern Chinese city this week slashed the relay journey in half to just over three hours on advice from Olympic officials in Beijing.

Weeks of demonstrations over China's crackdown in Tibet and its human rights record have turned the relay into a public relations nightmare for Beijing.

Some 2,200 police will be on Macau's streets for the event and Manuel Silverio, first vice president of the Macau Olympic Committee, said this week he was confident of "a smooth and uninterrupted torch relay."

Two Hong Kong democrats were this week turned away from the territory, now a special administrative region of China after 400 years of Portugeese rule ended in 1999, a report said.

Groups wearing pro-China t-shirts were seen entering Macau late Friday. Thousands of supporters wearing similar shirts lined the Hong Kong route to cheer along the torch, in a show of Chinese solidarity and patriotism.

The relay will start in the afternoon at the Fisherman's Wharf entertainment district before heading to some of Macau's most famous colonial sites and the 500-year-old A-Ma temple.

Set to end at 6:50 pm (1050 GMT), the torch will be flown to the holiday resort of Hainan Island late Saturday, its first stop on the mainland before snaking its way towards Beijing in time for the August 8 opening ceremony.

In Macau, the torch will cross two of the huge bridges that link the city centre to two outlying islands, where it will pass the giant Venetian casino. Several other casino resorts, including the Wynn Macau and the Grand Lisboa, will also be along the route.

The flame will be carried by 120 torchbearers, including octogenarian casino magnate Stanley Ho who held a four-decade gambling monopoly in the territory until it liberated its gaming laws in 2002.

Since then, the territory has seen giant casinos spring up to take advantage of the deep-pocketed Chinese gambler, with the city now close to overtaking Las Vegas in terms of gaming revenues.

Macau's leg comes after Hong Kong avoided many of the demonstrations that have marked the relay, many of them sparked by China's crackdown in Tibet after protests there erupted into violence on March 14.

Tibet's government-in-exile says more than 200 people were killed in the Chinese response, which included sealing off the region to foreign reporters, making accounts of bloodshed impossible to verify.

China said 20 people had been killed by Tibetan "rioters" until Monday, when state media for the first time said police shot dead a Tibetan pro-independence "insurgent."

International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge conceded Friday that the atmosphere at the August Beijing Games will be largely determined by the situation in Tibet, in an interview with Swiss daily Le Temps.

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