Female Giant Panda Hao Hao arrives in a transport cage at Brussels airport, Belgium. - AFP
BRUSSELS (AFP) - Two giant pandas, on loan from China for the next 15 years, received a red carpet welcome in Belgium on Sunday where they were greeted by Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo.
Hao Hao, a four-year-old female whose name means "Friendly", and Xing Hui ("Shining Star"), a male of the same age, landed around midday (1100 GMT) at Brussels airport after their journey in a pagoda-style cage onboard a cargo plane.
Their plane, arriving after a 15-hour flight from Sichuan in southwest China, taxied into place through an arc of water from the hoses of Belgian firefighters.
The pandas, each weighing over 110 kilos (242 pounds), emerged to find around 100 journalists and dozens of children from a nearby school waiting to welcome them.
"We are very honoured and proud that China agreed to lend Belgium two of its national treasures," said Di Rupo.
The new arrivals were then whisked under police escort to the Pairi Daiza zoo in the town of Brugellette, 60 kilometres (37 miles) outside Brussels.
Entry tickets to the zoo were entirely sold out on Sunday, even though zookeepers had warned that Hao Hao and Xing Hui will not be making any public appearances until they have acclimatised and finished a period in quarantine, due to end on April 5.
The zoo has spent some 10 million euros ($14 million) to prepare a vast enclosure for its new stars in its "China Garden", comprising a pool, cave and bamboo plantation.
"They have flown over a thousand mountains and a thousand rivers to arrive in Belgium," said China's ambassador to Belgium, Liao Liqiang.
The Belgian press has also reported that one million euros per year is being paid as "rent" for the pandas, which have been a valuable tool for soft diplomacy and revenue collection for China over the years.
Giant pandas are an endangered species, with only 1,600 left in the wild in China and 300 in captivity around the world.