Olympic relay begins in Argentina

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina: Runners surrounded by rows of security carried the Olympic flame past thousands of jubilant Argentines on Friday in the most trouble-free torch relay in nearly a week.

People showered the parade route with confetti as banks, government offices and businesses took an impromptu half-day holiday for the only Latin American stop on the flame's five-continent journey from Ancient Olympia to the Aug. 8-24 Beijing Games.

Small groups of fenced-off demonstrators protesting China's human rights record exchanged jeers with hundreds of pro-China demonstrators, but there were no major disruptions. Three water balloons thrown at a torchbearer as he passed the presidential palace were easily batted away by guards.

The biggest threat seemed to be blustery winds that caused the propane-powered flame to flicker repeatedly.

"This is beautiful, a marvelous spectacle," said Marcelo Tejera, 26.

Mayor Mauricio Macri took the torch from Chinese organizers and opened the relay by passing it to three-time Olympic windsurfing medalist Carlos Espinola, who jogged into Buenos Aires streets flanked by Chinese bodyguards. Heavyset police from Argentina's navy huffed to keep up.

Another torchbearer climbed into a shell and rowers sped the flame down a muddy River Plate canal, their long oars flashing beneath gathering storm clouds. Back on land, runners jogged past the pink presidential palace and the iconic Obelisk.

Tennis Hall of Famer Gabriela Sabatini capped the relay by running down a long carpet into the hall of an equestrian club, where she ignited a flame in a giant metal bowl, to warm applause.

"I'm supercharged with emotion," she said, her voice breaking. "It's so impressive to see how people have experienced this."

Heavy security accompanied the torch. About 1,300 federal police, 1,500 naval police and 3,000 traffic police and volunteers guarded the 8 1/2-mile route, and at least four security layers swaddled the torchbearers.

A tight group of Chinese guards wearing Argentina's blue-and-white surrounded the runners, with riot police driving alongside. Farther out, a line of burly men in blue-and-black track suits linked hands in a moving cordon, and plainclothes federal police patrolled beyond that.

Liu Qi, head of the Beijing Olympics Organizing Committee, told senior International Olympics Committee officials in Beijing on Friday that additional steps had been taken to protect the flame, and IOC spokeswoman Giselle Davies said "we're very confident and comfortable with that."

About 500 China supporters in red windbreakers handed out by organizers waved banners and denounced the political protests that disrupted the flame's last stops in London, Paris and San Francisco.

"We are here to celebrate the Olympics," said Shao Long Chen, a 19-year-old Chinese immigrant. "It's a great source of pride for us that the Olympics are being held in Beijing and that the torch is passing through Buenos Aires."

As for the protesters nearby, he said: "They're using sports to deliver a political message, and that's not right."

Protesters say China doesn't deserve to host the Olympics because of its human rights record, its harsh rule in Tibet and its friendly ties with Sudan. Pro-Tibet demonstrators tossed lotus flowers onto the route in what they said was a nonviolent protest of the Olympic host.

About 25 Falun Gong supporters lit a "human rights torch" and marched along the route to protest China's ban on the spiritual movement. Some traded insults with China supporters, but no violence was reported.

The flame heads next to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, the flame's only stop in Africa.

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Associated Press writers Mayra Pertossi, Debora Rey and Jeannette Neumann contributed to this report.

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