Escorts are squad of elite police

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 09 April, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 09 April, 2008, 12:00am

Pro-Tibet protesters tracking the Olympic torch relay through London, Paris and San Francisco have no doubt stolen the international limelight with their vocal and colourful demonstrations.

But the Chinese men in sunglasses shepherding the Olympic torch-bearers through demonstrations and fending off protesters have also attracted their share of attention, with many wondering who they are.

Despite their casual appearance, in blue-and-white tracksuits, they are part of a People's Armed Police corps, hand-picked in August by the Beijing Organising Committee for the Olympic Games, to escort the torch along its 137,000km global relay, the Shanghai-based Labour Daily reported.

Quoting Zhao Si, head of the special escort taskforce, the paper said the 70 specially trained members of the corps were officers with a minimum rank of lieutenant, and 30 of them would be assigned to overseas relay legs.

According to International Olympic Committee rules on the torch relay, the Olympic flame should be kept alight throughout the relay, either in a carefully designed Olympic lamp or from a torch carried by a torch-bearer. The escort officers have to take turns guarding the flame around the clock.

The officers, who will have to run each day alongside the torch-bearers, made their debut at a ceremony in Beijing's Tiananmen Square to welcome the Olympic flame on March 31.

The officers have gone through rigorous physical training, including 10km daily runs on top of driving lessons, to prepare for their arduous task.

Those assigned to overseas duties had received intensive training in etiquette, local customs and languages including English, French, Japanese and Spanish, the paper said.

However, with the unexpected unrest in Tibet and intensified protests against the Olympic torch relay, the escort officers still have to prove if they are up to the job of guarding the flame for the rest of its journey.