Amid tears, Chinese pandas take off for Taiwan
AFP - Wednesday, December 24
CHENGDU, China (AFP) - - Two pandas left China Tuesday on a historic mission to Taiwan, seemingly unperturbed by the outpouring of emotion triggered by their departure.
Tuan Tuan and Yuan Yuan, both four years old, took off from Shuangliu Airport near Chengdu in southwest China's Sichuan province on board a jet from Taiwan's EVA Air, in the manner of minor celebrities.
"Tuan Tuan and Yuan Yuan will sow the seeds of peace, solidarity and friendship on Taiwan's soil," Zheng Lizhong, deputy director of the Chinese Cabinet's Taiwan Affairs Office, said at a ceremony at the airport.
They left "with the good wishes of the 1.3 billion mainland compatriots," Zheng said, as the two pandas sat motionless in their steel crates surrounded by a dozen uniformed police, waiting to be loaded onto the plane.
As members of the Qiang ethnic group performed dances, ground crew loaded 450 kilograms (nearly half a ton) of fresh bamboo onto the plane, enough to keep the two furry goodwill ambassadors going for a week.
The pair were to arrive on Taiwan after a flight of about two and a half hours, and were scheduled to immediately enter into quarantine.
They were expected to be unveiled to the Taiwanese public during the Lunar New Year holidays starting January 25, as visible symbols of rapidly improving ties with China.
The ceremony at the airport was the culmination of an emotional day that began in the pitch-black and freezing hours before dawn, when the two were fed a breakfast of carrots and steamed corn buns at the Ya'an breeding base.
"I'm so sad," said Qu Chunmao, one of the pair's keepers. "I've been with them for six months. They're so cute. I like them both."
As the couple had been loaded onto a truck, children dressed up as pandas performed a dance in a small ceremony bidding farewell to the two local heroes.
"I hope one day I can go to Taiwan to see the pandas there," said five-year-old He Jiawei, beaming under her panda outfit.
The truck left Ya'an under police escort, with hundreds of people lined up along the streets, waving flowers and shouting their goodbyes to the two furry diplomats.
"I'm sad to see the pandas go, but I'm happy that Taiwanese children can experience the cute animals," said Guo Jie, an 18-year-old student at a technical college.
Accompanying the pandas on their trip were a large contingent of journalists as well as some 20 Chinese animal experts and their two original keepers, who will stay in Taiwan for two months.
"Tuan Tuan and Yuan Yuan are finally setting off for the historic trip to Taiwan. This symbolises another major step forward in pragmatic cross-strait exchanges," said Yang Hsiao-tung, Taipei city government spokesman.
The city government, which has invested around 10 million US dollars to build an enclosure at Taipei zoo, expects the bears to attract some six millions visitors annually.
The panda couple were earmarked as envoys to Taiwan in 2006 but their arrival was only made possible after Beijing-friendly President Ma Ying-jeou took office earlier this year.
The pro-independence former president Chen Shui-bian banned the import of pandas during his term, accusing Beijing of trying to curry favour with the Taiwanese people through so-called "panda diplomacy."
Beijing still considers the island to be part of its territory awaiting reunification, by force if necessary, despite their split in 1949 after a civil war.
As Taiwan got ready for the pandas, some newspapers kept up their skepticism about the entire arrangement and President Ma's role in it.
"He has reduced himself to the status of chief executive and sacrificed Taiwan's sovereignty to please Beijing," the Liberty Times said in a commentary.
"China accordingly gave the Ma administration the two pandas, acting like a Chinese emperor to a vassal state."
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