Armed guard for Taiwan's pandas

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The Independent Online

More than 500 security guards and armed police were keeping watch yesterday at an airport in southwest China where a pair of pandas will take off for their new home in Taiwan, state media reported.

The tight security underscored enduring political tension between China and rival Taiwan, with the self-ruled island's opposition Democratic Progressive Party warning that the pandas may be a communist propaganda ploy.

An Eva Air jet from Taiwan landed at the Shuangliu Airport in the southwestern Chinese city of Chengdu at midday yesterday, and will leave today afternoon with pandas "Tuan Tuan" and "Yuan Yuan," the official Xinhua News Agency said.

More than 500 security guards were deployed at the airport, with armed police standing guard around the clock, China Central Television said. Roads will be blocked when the pandas, who live at a sanctuary 75 miles outside of Chengdu, travel to the airport in a convoy, CCTV said.

The report did not explain the need for such high security, but events surrounding Taiwan have always been sensitive in China. An official who answered the telephone at the Shuangliu airport refused to answer any questions or give his names.

A Chengdu police publicity official would only say, "We can guarantee those pandas arrive Taiwan safe and happily." He also would not give his name, as is common among Chinese officials.

Beijing first offered the pandas to Taiwan in 2005 hoping they would strengthen Taiwanese public support for reuniting with the mainland, an offer rejected by the island's former leaders who supported independence for the self-governed island. Current Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou has tried to nurture closer ties with the mainland and accepted the pandas as a goodwill gesture.

When linked, the 4-year-old pandas' names "Tuan Tuan" and "Yuan Yuan" mean "reunion" in Chinese.

Taiwan and China split amid civil war in 1949, and China has repeatedly warned that any Taiwanese moves to formalize its de facto independence could be met with war.

A veterinarian and panda keeper will travel with the pair, packing motion sickness pills as well as more than 1,700 pounds of bamboo in case they don't like the food at the sprawling hillside Taipei Zoo.

A two-story-high glass and rock house will serve as the animals' new home. After a monthlong quarantine the exhibit will be open for public viewing around the Chinese Lunar New Year, which falls on Jan. 26.

The giant panda is unique to China and serves as an unofficial national mascot, giving such gifts political overtones. China regularly sends the animals abroad as a sign of warm diplomatic relations or to mark breakthroughs in ties.

Cheng Wen-tsang, spokesman of Taiwan's opposition Democratic Progressive Party, has said China's ultimate goal is to win Taiwanese political support, and that the pandas "will not cover up China's military threat against us."