TAIPEI, Oct 24 (Reuters) It wasn't the Olympic event that many had hoped for, but Taiwan's independence-leaning government today served up its own version of the famous torch relay to highlight its drive to rejoin the United Nations.
Several thousand people turned out for the relay's launch in front of the presidential office, where the first runner was President Chen Shui-bian, whose Democratic Progressive Party favours development of a Taiwan identify separate from China.
''Taiwan has never been a province of the People's Republic of China. Across the Taiwan Strait there is Taiwan and China as two countries on either side,'' Chen said at the relay launch.
''Taiwan has the right to demand its own seat in the United Nations alongside the world's other peace-loving nations.'' Taiwan was effectively kicked out of the UN in 1971, when Beijing joined the world body as China's official representative.
Successive bids by the diplomatically isolated island for UN membership have failed for the past 15 years due to pressure from China. Beijing has threatened to attack self-ruled Taiwan if it moves toward formal independence.
Chen was accompanied by Vice President Annette Lu, as well as Frank Hsieh, the DPP's candidate for the presidential election set for next March, amid chants of ''Love Taiwan'' and ''Go Taiwan'' from the crowd assembled in the early morning hours.
China has claimed sovereignty over Taiwan since their split in 1949, when Mao Zedong's Communists won a civil war and Chiang Kai-shek's defeated Nationalists fled to the island.
The relay will see the torch travel around Taiwan over the next 11 days, as part of the DPP's ''UN for Taiwan'' campaign that is expected to culminate with a referendum next March, asking voters whether the island should rejoin the world body under the name Taiwan.
Many see the relay as a consolation of sorts after Taipei and Beijing failed to agree on terms to allow the official Olympic torch route pass through the island on its way to the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
The prospect of the DPP's referendum has drawn the ire of both Washington and Beijing, which see the move as a provocative, incremental step toward eventual independence.
The more China-friendly Nationalist Party, which favours eventual reunification with China, launched a competing relay also on Wednesday, designed to draw attention to its own referendum bid for Taiwan's re-entry to the UN.
REUTERS ARB KP0919