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President Hu declares start of Olympic torch relay [updated]
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Chinese President Hu Jintao lit a creatively designed cauldron in Beijing's Tian'anmen Square with the Olympic torch on Monday morning, marking the official start of the round-the-world relay.  [Video] [Full coverage]

The ceremony kicked off on the square at the heart of Beijing two hours after a specially chartered Air China plane carrying the flame from Greece touched down at about 9:00 AM.

People dressed in colorful costumes performed acrobatics, danced and displayed their martial arts skills to mark the arrival, which took place 130 days ahead of the Olympic Games.

On a platform surrounded by white marble railing and covered with a red carpet, Hu lit the cauldron, whose design was inspired by a traditional Chinese bronze cauldron. It stands 130 centimeters tall, symbolizing the 130-day duration of the torch relay. The 56 "lucky clouds" hollowed out of its curved plate symbolize well wishes to the world from China's 56 ethnic groups.

"I declare the start of the torch relay of the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games," Hu said, holding high the torch before handing it to Olympic men's hurdles champion Liu Xiang, who then ran towards the Tian'anmen Rostrum.

Vice President Xi Jinping, a member of the Political Bureau Standing Committee of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China (CPC), addressed the ceremony.

Xi, on behalf of the Chinese government and 1.3 billion Chinese people, gave a hearty welcome to the sacred flame and thanked those at home and abroad for their interest in and support of the Beijing Olympic Games.

The torch relay is to cover 113 Chinese cities across 31 provinces, municipalities and autonomous regions, and it will spread in the broadest, most direct and vivid way the Olympic spirit among the Chinese people, Xi said.

The relay would vigorously inspire Olympic enthusiasm from Chinese of all ethnic groups and create a warm Olympic atmosphere in society, as well as show the world the Chinese people's eager anticipation, involvement and devotion to the games, he said.

He said it would also help unite the strength of all Chinese to host a successful Olympics.

The government and people would continue to extend all-out support to the Beijing Olympics and be a great host to friends from all corners of the world, said Xi.

"We expect the 1.3 billion Chinese people and people from the world over to share the passion and glory of the Olympics and join hands in creating a more harmonious and better future," he said.

Zhou Yongkang, member of the nine-man Political Bureau Standing Committee, and other CPC and state leaders attended the ceremony.

President Hu Jintao hands over the torch to Olympic gold medal-winning hurdler Liu Xiang

Also present was International Olympic Committee (IOC) Coordination Commission Chairman Hein Verbruggen, who addressed the ceremony on behalf of IOC president Jacques Rogge.

Verbruggen congratulated Beijing on the arrival of the flame and thanked the Chinese people for their support for the Olympics and the torch relay. He also thanked the Beijing Olympics organizing committee for its painstaking preparations for the games.

The torch is scheduled to depart from Beijing on Tuesday for the Kazakh city of Almaty, the first stop in its global tour of 135 cities.

Beijing Olympics' chief organizer Liu Qi, who escorted the flame back in a lantern, extended his gratitude to Greece and the IOC.

"The Olympic flame symbolizes the Olympic spirits -- hopes and dreams, brightness and happiness, friendship and peace. With these spirits, it has come to the land of China," he said.

"With the efforts of the torch relay cities and all concerned parties, the longest Olympics torch relay ever, covering the largest area and including the most participants, will achieve full success," said the official.

The relay "will deliver the Olympic dream and spirit to the Chinese people and send the friendliness and best wishes of the Chinese people to the world," he said.

图文:北京奥运圣火欢迎仪式 刘淇在现场致辞

Liu Qi, president of the Beijing Organizing Committee of the 2008 Olympic Games, gives speech at the ceremony at Tian'anmen Square, Beijing on Monday morning.

The flame excited many Chinese, who crowded around screens in shopping malls and railway stations to watch the event televised live.

"It's hard to describe my feelings now, which are a mixture of excitement and expectation," said Li Yue, a Renmin University of China student.

Na Heli, whose father was a torchbearer for the Athens Olympics and who himself will participate in this relay, was wondering which road he would cover.

"I do hope that I could pass the Olympic Park, where my ancestors lived and where I now work, with the torch in my hand," he said.

Not everyone could take time off work to watch the ceremony. Among these people was Tan Xiaochun, who is in charge at the National Stadium project site, where workers were installing equipment for the Games.

"Along with the Olympic flame, China and Beijing would become the focus of world attention on August 8," he said poetically. "When the flame of peace, friendship and hope is lit in the 'bird's nest', it will light up the whole world." The bird's nest is the colloquial term for the main stadium.

The relay will cover 137,000 kilometers before the flame returns to Beijing and enters the National Stadium on Aug. 8 for the Olympics' opening ceremony.

图文-奥运圣火传递在天安门启动 刘翔高擎火炬 
Olympic men's hurdles champion Liu Xiang runs in the Beijing Olympic torch relay ceremony at Tian'anmen Square Monday morning.

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