Questions raised over mysterious 'men in blue'

Shortly after Konnie Huq finished her brief leg of London's farcical Olympic torch relay on Sunday, she called a friend on her mobile phone. "Did you see those blokes in the blue tracksuits?" the former Blue Peter presenter whispered down the line. "They were bloody aggressive, weren't they?"

Huq had just been involved in a tussle with a protester, so it was surprising that what appeared to concern her most was the praetorian guard of Chinese officials who formed a wall around her during the short dash, rather than the demonstrator intent on wrestling the Olympic torch from her grasp.

But for any of the athletes, protesters, journalists and even police who found themselves guided, barged or fighting with this particularly committed group of Chinese minders, the identity and function of the "boys in blue tracksuits" was of paramount importance.

Little is known about the mysterious guards accompanying the flame on its "harmonious journey", apart from the fact that they are well-trained security officers under the remit of the Beijing Games co-ordinators, who have sweeping political powers in China.

Officially the minders are "flame attendants" employed by the Beijing Olympic Organising Committee (Bocog), which has organised the global relay. Their role, in theory, is to be constantly on hand to ensure the flame never goes out. At night and during airline flights, when the torch is kept in specially-made closed lanterns, three attendants guard it at all times. Should the flame be extinguished during a relay, they are responsible for relighting it.

So far, so good. But, although Commander Bob Broadhurst, the Metropolitan Police officer in charge of the route, insisted that flame attendants had no executive powers in Britain, their behaviour on Sunday indicated otherwise – or at least hinted that they were being allowed to overstep the mark.

Barging people out of the way, and even scuffling with some of the 1,000 police officers called in to provide extra security, the tracksuited guards made their presence felt across the capital. Their behaviour has prompted many to ask whether Scotland Yard deliberately turned a blind eye to their tactics.

"Britain seems to have caved in to demands from Beijing that Chinese security agents police the streets of London," said Matt Whitticase, of Free Tibet UK. "It certainly fits in with the supine approach Britain has taken towards China over the years, compared with other nations."

Shami Chakrabati, director of the human rights group Liberty, added: "Everyone appreciates the difficult duty of our police to hold the line between the Olympic ceremony and critics and supporters of the Chinese regime. But who were the ominous figures running in formation in light blue uniforms? Where was their lawful authority to scuffle with policemen and protesters?"

Yesterday in Paris, the flame attendants were forced to spend most of the relay on a bus. But their dubious security techniques could well be back on display tomorrow when the torch arrives in San Francisco – depending, of course, on how they are viewed by American law enforcement agencies.

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