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Armed escort for Very Important Panda passengers

As dangerously picky eaters and notoriously lacklustre lovers China’s giant pandas are used to living life under the threat of extinction. Until now, however, they have never had to contend with assassination.

When Tuantuan and Yuanyuan prepared to leave today for their new home in Taiwan as goodwill tokens from Beijing to Taipei, however, the Chinese authorities were leaving nothing to chance. The pandas will travel with a 500-strong guard detail that would put the most paranoid presidential motorcade to shame.

The cross-Strait mood has begun to lighten somewhat in recent months and the names of the pandas combine to form the Chinese word for reunion. There remain, however, clear suspicions on both sides: the main opposition party in Taiwan gave warning that the offer of the pandas could represent another propaganda trick by the communists.

The original offer in 2005 was designed to win public support in Taiwan for the idea of reunification with the mainland. The offer was rejected and it was not until Ma Ying-jeou, the new Taiwanese President, assumed power in May that the panda gift found itself back on the agenda.

Even as China prepares to send its beloved animals to Taiwan, however, there remains enough tension for Beijing to fear the goodwill gambit may be fraught with peril. Nobody, either at the airport in Chengdu or in Beijing, has said openly what that peril might be but it was, after all, Mao Zedong, who declared that political power grows from the barrel of a gun.

Flanked by their guards, the pandas are due to leave their homeland in the southwestern province of Sichuan in a specially chartered EVA Air aircraft.

Road blocks will be set up to protect the convoy when it moves its precious VIP (Very Important Panda) cargo 75 miles (120km) from the sanctuary outside Chengdu. Armed police will be deployed all day at the airport for an extra measure of protection, the state television reported. A spokesman assured reporters that the pandas would reach their destination “safe and happy”.

The four-year-old pandas have been living at the research centre after being evacuated from the Wolong reserve, which was damaged by the earthquake in May.

A $10 million (£7 million) enclosure has been built for them in Taipei and their new keeper, Yu Hsueh-ying, arrived in Sichuan ten days ago to help with the move.

“Tuantuan and Yuanyuan are very healthy and we will do our best to look after them in Taipei,” she said.

Even if they survive the mysterious threats anticipated at the airport and along the dusty road from the Chengdu panda sanctuary, the pandas may not be out of the woods. As well as having weak digestive systems and a propensity to starve themselves if they cannot find the right type of bamboo, pandas are terrible travellers.

A veterinary surgeon and a specialist panda handler will accompany the animals on the flight, equipped with travel sickness pills and about a tonne of bamboo grown in Sichuan in case the food on EVA Air, or on the mountain outside Taipei, is not to their taste.

A welcome ceremony will be held for the pandas tomorrow. The guests of honour will be unable to attend, however, because they must begin a 30-day quarantine period.