High Security Greets Olympic Torch In Oman

The governor of Muscat, Al mutasem bin Hamood, right, hands over the Beijing Olympics relay torch to Sayyd Shehab bin Tariq, Oman's Sultan Qaboos consultant in Muscat Oman, Monday April 14, 2008.
AP Photo/Hamid Al-Qasmi
The Olympic torch made its way through the steep streets of the Omani capital Monday, passing under the graceful stone arches at the Gates of Muscat amid tight security and traditional dancers with daggers.

Officials said they expected a smooth relay of the flame on the brief Middle Eastern leg of its 20-nation tour that has been marked by chaos and protests.

Oman, a Muslim country at the southern end of the Arabian peninsula with a booming tourism industry, has strong economic ties with China, a major importer of its oil. Demonstrations or protests are virtually unheard of in this tightly controlled sultanate.

The torch arrived from Tanzania and was received at Oman International Airport by Omani sports minister Ali bin Masoud al-Sunaidy early Monday.

Omani authorities have promised a party-like atmosphere, including musical performances and traditional dances to be held along the 12-mile relay route through the streets of the capital, Muscat, and along its scenic waterfront.

By mid-afternoon, hundreds of people, mostly Omanis and Asian expatriates, lined streets to watch the torch descend from the heart of hilly Muscat and pass tourist attractions such as the Sultan's Palace, before winding along the edge of the Persian Gulf against the backdrop of spectacular mountains.

About 80 torchbearers, including Omani athletes and other well-known personalities, are to run with the torch before the official ceremony scheduled in cooler evening weather.

Muscat's festive mood was in sharp contrast to protests that have marred the torch relay in other countries. Officials here said any attempt to disrupt the parade would be dealt with severely.

"Our security is tight. ... The Royal Oman Police is ready to handle any such situation," Habib Macki, vice chairman of the Oman Olympic Committee, said at a news conference this week.

Dozens of policemen were deployed along the torch route, where streets were closed off and parking was banned. An army helicopter hovered overhead.

Men in traditional Arab white robes, with daggers tucked in their belts, danced to the beat of drums before the torch was lit by Muscat governor Sayyed Al Mutassim bin Hamoud Al Busaidy, and handed over to Sayyed Shihab bin Tariq Al Said, an adviser to Sultan Qaboos bin Said.

Schoolchildren wearing white caps and T-shirts with the words "Beijing Olympics 2008" waved small red Chinese and Omani flags.

"It's a great honor to have the torch in Oman," Macki said ahead of the opening ceremony.

He said Oman was chosen for the relay because of the "excellent relationship that goes back a long way between Oman and China and the strong economic ties that bind us."

The Olympic flame, which began its worldwide six-continent trek from ancient Olympia in Greece on March 24, has been the focus of protests over China's human rights record with major chaos and disruptions during its stops in Paris, London and San Francisco.

However, the relays in Argentina and Tanzania were largely peaceful and without major incidents.

The turmoil over the torch relay and the growing international criticism of China's policies on Tibet and Darfur have turned the Beijing games - which begin Aug. 8 - into one of the most contentious in recent history.

The torch next goes to Islamabad, Pakistan, where officials said that they had changed the route of the relay. Arif Hassan, president of Pakistan Olympic Association, would not say if the change was made because of security concerns, only that it was aimed at helping Wednesday's relay go smoothly.

President Pervez Musharraf, who was in China on Monday, warned against outsiders trying to disrupt the relay.

"We have to take care that there is no infiltration by some elements who are bent on disrupting our understanding and great relationship," Musharraf said in a speech at Beijing University.

With the disruptions along the flame's route this year, Australian Olympic Committee president John Coates said he supports re-examining how torch relays are conducted. After the relay is complete, the International Olympic Committee will discuss the matter with organizers of the 2012 Olympics in London, he said.

"I think that there always is the potential for something that is international to be ambushed and that's what's happened here," Coates said.