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Page last updated at 00:18 GMT, Monday, 24 August 2009 01:18 UK

Calmer waters between China and Taiwan?

China and Taiwan have held their first swimming race in the stretch of water that divides them - a further sign of improved ties between these former foes, as the BBC Chinese Service's Nansen Lin has been discovering.

Swimmer Lee Yin-han from Tianjin in northern China was the first across the channel - 15 August 2009
Lee Yin-han from Tianjin on the mainland, was the first across

During the peak of hostilities between China and Taiwan, commandos from both sides were believed to have crossed the Taiwan Strait on sabotage and assassination missions.

When Justin Yifu Lin, now chief economist and senior vice president of the World Bank, crossed the narrowest point separating Taiwan from the mainland 30 years ago, he risked being shot dead, killed by landmines, or drowned in rough seas.

A captain in Taiwan's army at the time, Mr Lin swam 2,000 metres to defect to China. He still faces a court martial and possible life sentence if he returns to Taiwan.

So the crossing of the once-dangerous channel by 49 swimmers from China and 48 from Taiwan on 15 August was a very different journey from those of the past.

The swimmers were protected by the coast guards of both sides and greeted with fireworks instead of gunfire on arrival.

It was all part of an event to mark the recent improvements in cross-straits relations.

Kinmen's 'Berlin Wall'

The swim was organised by the city government of Xiamen in China and the Taiwanese islands of Kinmen, just off the coast of the mainland. The central governments of both sides endorsed the event.

Lee Yin-han from northern Chinese city of Tianjin was the first to cross the 7,100 metres to Kinmen.

Map

Mr Lee told reporters it was not a competition but a chance to increase friendly exchanges and peaceful co-operation between the two sides.

Lee Cheng-shiuang, a university student from Taiwan, told the BBC he did not think of anything in particular - he just wanted to experience crossing the channel.

Before the crossing, Taiwan's military in Kinmen cleared about 500 landmines and temporarily removed hundreds of defensive obstacles from the beach the swimmers would arrive at.

Though martial law was lifted in 1992 and the military presence has been greatly reduced, the coast of Kinmen is still carpeted with landmines and surrounded by anti-ship barricades.

"This is the Berlin Wall of Kinmen", said Kinmen County Magistrate Lee Zhu-feng.

Mr Lee said while some of the rail stockades may be kept as a reminder of history, de-mining operations are underway and more than one-third of the landmines have been removed.

Missiles aimed

Some 70,000 explosive devices including anti-personnel and anti-vehicle mines were laid in Kinmen to deter China's People's Liberation Army from attacking after Taiwan and China split at the end of the civil war in 1949.

Defences on the Taiwanese beach, Aug 09
Relations have not been exactly friendly across the Straits

Taiwan is unable to sign international treaties and so cannot join the Mine Ban Treaty. However, Taiwan has passed its own legislation requiring all the landmines to be cleared by 2013.

Kinmen has long been in the crossfire of hostilities across the Taiwan Strait. In 1958, Chinese artillery bombarded the island group with nearly half a million shells in 44 days.

Beijing regards self-ruled Taiwan as an inseparable part of its territory and has vowed to bring Taiwan under its rule by force if necessary.

Tension has eased since the China-friendly President Ma Ying-jeou took office last year, though officials complain that Beijing has kept increasing the number of short-range missiles aimed at Taiwan.

President Ma visited Kinmen last year and vowed to turn it from a potential battlefield to a symbol of peace.

He said Taiwan's main threat is from nature, not mainland China.



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