China, Taiwan approve swim through military zone

Mon Jun 15, 2009 5:01am EDT
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TAIPEI (Reuters) - Authorities in China and Taiwan, political rivals once on the brink of war, have agreed to remove underwater military barricades and let 100 people swim from one side to the other, Taiwan officials said on Monday.

The 8.5-km (5.2-mile) swim, billed as the latest symbol of peace between the two sides as well as their first military agreement, is set for August 15 between the southeast Chinese city of Xiamen and Little Kinmen, an outlying Taiwan-controlled island.

"The bigger meaning is that this is a competition for peace," Kinmen County Magistrate Lee Zhu-feng told a news conference. "We want peace, not war."

Military officials have agreed to remove anti-ship landing barricades, which stand as testament to a skirmish between the two sides five decades ago, county officials said.

Protected by coast guard boats from both sides, about 100 professional swimmers, 50 from each side, will go one way from Xiamen through the warm but choppy waters.

Next year another 100 swimmers, 50 from each side, plan to do the route in reverse in what could become an long-term annual event, organizers said.

In 1958, China bombed the islands of Kinmen, also known as Quemoy, for weeks as it tried to seize them. Kinmen has strategic and military value and remains heavily guarded. The main island of Taiwan is about 160 km (100 miles) from China.

The barricades are spikes mounted at an angle on cement bases and designed to spear warships headed toward shore.

China has claimed Taiwan since 1949, when Mao Zedong's Communists won the Chinese civil war and Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalists (KMT) fled to Taiwan. Beijing has vowed to bring Taiwan under its rule, by force if necessary.

Since Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou took office in May, the China-friendly leader has eased tension with Beijing through trade and transit deals, although military distrust lingers.

(Reporting by Ralph Jennings; Editing by Ken Wills and Sugita Katyal)