HO CHI MINH CITY, April 29 (Reuters) - Groups of Chinese youths, dressed in white Beijing 2008 Olympics T-shirts and carrying national flags, gathered in Ho Chi Minh City on Tuesday for the last international leg of the protest-dogged torch relay.
Few expected disruptions in the city of eight million that many still call Saigon, despite a call by overseas Vietnamese groups opposed to Communist Party rule for demonstrations over the competing claims by Vietnam and China for South China Sea islands.
Uniformed and plainclothes police discouraged scores of Chinese from unfurling banners near the cathedral in the city centre, where streets were clogged with motorbikes and cars.
Security was tight along the route and outside China’s consulate, and at the Chinese embassy in Hanoi, Vietnam’s capital.
Red flags, banners and signs welcoming the torch hung from lampposts along several avenues of the city, which is also preparing to mark the 33rd anniversary on Wednesday of the communist takeover from U.S.-backed South Vietnam, and May Day.
Nearly four hours of events were planned starting at 6 p.m. (1100 GMT) from the city centre, including a run by 60 torch bearers along a 10-13 km (6-8 mile) route to a military stadium.
Vietnam is the last international leg of the relay before it goes to Hong Kong on Wednesday.
The global relay has endured the most tortuous journey of its history, beset by trouble since protesters breached security at the torch-lighting ceremony at Ancient Olympia in Greece last month. Protesters have jostled the torchbearers in several places and denounced Beijing’s human rights record, especially in Tibet.
In recent weeks Chinese citizens in several countries have also organised nationalistic demonstrations, criticising the West for accusing Beijing of human rights violations.
South Korea is investigating violence at the relay in Seoul over the weekend.
Newspapers there ran angry editorials denouncing Chinese students who hurled rocks at groups criticising Beijing, charging into lines of police, beating pro-Tibet protesters and kicking an elderly man [SEO123769].
In Vietnam, a U.S. citizen of Vietnamese origin was detained and expelled last week after authorities accused him of planning to disrupt the relay or protest outside the Chinese consulate, scene of rare nationalistic demonstrations last December over the Spratly islands and Paracel islands.
The government frequently makes public statements on its claim to the islands, rocky outcrops that may be rich in oil and gas. China, Taiwan, Brunei, Malaysia and the Philippines all make claims to the Spratlys. (Editing by John Chalmers) ("Countdown to Beijing Olympics" blog at blogs.reuters.com/china)