TAIPEI (AFP) — Two giant pandas made their long-anticipated, groundbreaking trip from China to Taiwan Tuesday, in the latest sign of fast thawing ties between the two former bitter rivals.
Tuan Tuan and Yuan Yuan, both four, landed at 5:03 pm (0903 GMT) after a flight of more than two-and-a-half hours from Chengdu, the capital of China's Sichuan province.
"They are finally brought to Taipei after so many years of efforts. This marked another step forward in the cross-Strait civil exchanges," said Yang Hsiao-tung, the Taipei city government spokesman who led a delegation to China Monday to bring the animals to Taiwan.
Zheng Lizhong, deputy director of China's Taiwan Affairs Office, had said before the pandas' departure: "Tuan Tuan and Yuan Yuan will sow the seeds of peace, solidarity and friendship on Taiwan's soil."
They left "with the good wishes of the 1.3 billion mainland compatriots", he said.
While the China-friendly ruling Kuomintang welcome the bears, the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) accused the administration of introducing the endangered animals at the expense of Taiwan's sovereignty.
"The pandas come but Taiwan's sovereignty is gone," DPP parliamentarian Lai Ching-tech.
"Tuanyuan" -- a combination of the characters making up the two pandas' names -- means "reunion" or "unity" in Chinese, a political implication flatly rejected by the DPP.
Another DPP legislator, Lin Shu-fen, insisted that Taiwan reciprocate Beijing's move by sending to Beijing a pair of indigenous monkeys called "Tai Tai" and "Du Du," meaning Taiwan independence in Chinese.
Accompanying the pandas was a large contingent of journalists as well as some 20 Chinese animal experts and the animals' two original keepers, who will remain at the zoo in Taipei for two months.
"Initially Tuan Tuan and Yuan Yuan were a little bit nervous but they became stable after taking in some bamboos and steamed buns and slept throughout the flight," keeper Wang Jingzhih said upon their arrival.
"I believe the Taipei zoo has the ability to take good care of them. After all, its keepers have taken a training programme in Sichuan," said Wang Pengyen, a Chinese panda expert.
The bears are expected to be unveiled to the Taiwanese public during the Lunar New Year holidays starting January 25, if they complete their quarantine with a clean bill of health.
The Taipei city government, which has invested around 10 million US dollars in an enclosure at Taipei zoo, expects the bears to attract six million visitors a year.
The pandas 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 welcomed the pandas, some newspapers remained skeptical about the 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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