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Monday, 24 March 2008, 22:09 GMT
Olympic torch lit despite protest
A protester broke through security and attempted to display a flag while China's representative spoke - 24/03/2008
A protester briefly ran behind Beijing's envoy as he spoke

The Olympic torch has been lit at a ceremony in Greece that was briefly disrupted by pro-Tibet activists.

Protesters from media rights group Reporters Without Borders broke through the cordon of 1,000 police officers in Olympia as China's envoy spoke.

Activists had vowed to protest over the violence in and around Tibet.

The torch will now be carried in an around-the-world relay through 20 countries, before arriving in Beijing for the start of the Games on 8 August.

As Liu Qi, head of the Beijing Olympic organising committee, spoke ahead of the torch lighting, three men broke into the ceremony venue.

One ran up behind him attempting to display a black flag depicting the Olympic rings made from handcuffs.

The men were from the France-based media rights watchdog Reporters Sans Frontieres (Reporters Without Borders, or RSF), which has called for a boycott of the opening ceremony of the games.

The torch is the link between all athletes and citizens of this world... It has the force to unite humanity and to stand for harmony
Jacques Rogge, IOC President

They were quickly bundled away by police and Mr Liu continued his speech uninterrupted.

The live television coverage, beaming the scene around the world, quickly cut away from Mr Liu and the protesters until they had been removed.

"We cannot let the Chinese government seize the Olympic flame, a symbol of peace, without denouncing the dramatic human rights situation in the country," RSF said in a statement.

Later, as the torch began its journey, pro-Tibet activists unfurled banners and shouted slogans before Greek security wrestled them away.

'Boycott unwanted'

Actors dressed in ancient Greek costume then lit the torch in the traditional manner by using a parabolic mirror to focus the sun's rays.

Torch lighting ceremony in Olympia, Greece - 24/03/2008
Despite cloudy weather, the torch was lit using the sun's rays

There were fears that stormy weather would prevent the torch being lit in the customary way.

The ceremony, beside the Temple of Hera, was moved forward by an hour and the sun shone through a break in the clouds.

The head of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), Jacques Rogge, has defended the decision to hold the Games in China saying: "The major political leaders don't want a boycott".

In his speech during the ceremony, Mr Rogge said the Olympic torch relay and the Games should take place in a peaceful environment.

"The torch is the link between all athletes and citizens of this world; between all of us who believe in Olympism and the virtue of sport. It has the force to unite humanity and to stand for harmony."

He told the Associated Press news agency on Monday that he was engaged on a daily basis in "silent diplomacy" with Beijing on Tibet and other human rights issues.

Tibet unrest

Tibet activists are angered that the torch's 136,000-km (85,000-mile) route will take it through the Himalayan region and Mount Everest, which straddles the border between Nepal and Tibet.

China sent troops to Tibet in 1950 and since then there have been periods of unrest and sporadic uprisings as resentment of Beijing's rule has persisted.

The latest round of anti-China protests began in Tibet's main city, Lhasa, on 10 March - the 49th anniversary of a failed uprising - and gradually escalated.

Lhasa saw at least two days of violence and there have also been protests in provinces which border Tibet.

China says 19 people were killed by rioters and accuses Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama of inciting the violence.

The Tibetan government in exile says at least 130 people have died in a crackdown by Chinese troops and deny any role in the protests.

Olympic torch relay route
Torch lit in Olympia on 24 March and taken on five-day relay around Greece to Athens
After handover ceremony, it is taken to Beijing on 31 March to begin a journey of 136,800 km (85,000 miles) around the world
Torch arrives in Macao on 3 May. After three-month relay all around China, it arrives in Beijing for opening ceremony on 8 August

By STEPHEN WILSON and NICHOLAS PAPHITIS, Associated Press Writers Mon Mar 24, 6:45 PM ET

ANCIENT OLYMPIA, Greece - Even before the Olympic flame was lit Monday, a protester of China's human rights policies disrupted the solemn ceremony, foreshadowing the prospect of demonstrations throughout the 85,000-mile torch-relay route right up to the Beijing Games themselves.


Forecasts of clouds and rain had been considered the main threat to the pomp-filled torch-lighting. But in the end, while the sun sparked the flame to life, it was the protesters who turned the joyful bow to the Olympics' roots into a political statement about China's crackdown in Tibet and other rights issues.

Three men advocating press freedom evaded massive security and ran onto the field at the ceremony in Ancient Olympia before they were seized by police. Minutes later, a Tibetan woman covered in fake blood briefly blocked the path of the torch relay.

The incidents came after International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge told The Associated Press in an interview that he was engaged in "silent diplomacy" with the Chinese but wouldn't intervene in politics to try to change their policies.

"We are discussing on a daily basis with Chinese authorities, including discussing these issues, while strictly respecting the sovereignty of China in its affairs," Rogge said.

Protests are bound to follow the torch throughout its 136-day route across five continents and 20 countries. China pledged strict security measures to ensure its segment of the relay won't be marred by protests.

Tibetan activists have already said they plan to demonstrate elsewhere on the route.

"Later we will do protests in London and Paris," said Tenzin Dorjee, a member of Students for a Free Tibet who protested in Ancient Olympia.

Protests of China's rule turned violent March 14 in the Tibetan capital of Lhasa, sparking waves of unrest in surrounding provinces. China reported a death toll of 22 from the violence, but Tibet's exiled government says 80 Tibetans were killed. Nineteen died in subsequent violence in Gansu province, it said.

A rising chorus of international criticism and floated calls for a boycott have unnerved the Chinese leadership, which has turned up efforts to put its own version of the unrest before the international public.

China has blamed the riots on followers of the Dalai Lama, Tibet's exiled spiritual leader. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has urged China to start talks with him.

Edward Friedman, a China specialist at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, said he expects Beijing to rally national pride by attacking its critics. Friedman said he expects China to put pressure on other countries to stay neutral and "to not do things to politicize the Olympics."

Luciano Barra, deputy CEO of the 2006 Winter Games in Turin, recalled how the torch relay in Italy was dogged by protesters opposed to construction of a rail tunnel. Organizers diverted the route at one stage to avoid the demonstrators.

"It makes me laugh compared to the current problem," Barra said.

Another potential flashpoint is the route through Tibet. The flame is due to be carried to the summit of Mount Everest in May and pass through Lhasa in June.

"The very idea that they will be able to parade the torch through Tibet after the crackdown is obscene given what's going on in Tibet," said Anne Holmes, acting director of the London-based Free Tibet campaign.

Tibetan groups have also urged the IOC to keep the relay out of the Himalayan region. Rogge, speaking before the incidents, said there were no plans by Beijing organizers, known as BOCOG, to change the route, but he didn't rule it out.

"The original torch relay route has been confirmed by BOCOG and Chinese authorities," Rogge said. "So far, as I speak now, the IOC is in agreement with that. No one can foresee the future."

China hopes the Olympics will showcase its emergence from developing country into a world power.

Apart from Tibet, China has come under international criticism for support of Sudan and its role in Darfur. Last month, Hollywood director Steven Spielberg withdrew as an artistic adviser to the opening and closing ceremonies over the Darfur issue.

The IOC has faced calls to take a hard line with China. But Rogge reiterated his long-standing position that the Olympic body is not a political organization and stressed he is involved in private dialogue with Chinese leaders.

"The IOC is engaged in what I call a 'silent diplomacy' with Chinese authorities since Day One of the preparations of the games," Rogge said.

At Monday's ceremony, one of the three protesting members of the Paris-based group Reporters Without Borders ran behind BOCOG President Liu Qi as he was giving a speech. The protester unfurled a black banner showing the Olympic rings as handcuffs.

China state TV cut away from the protest and showed a prerecorded scene. Chinese TV commentators did not mention the demonstration.

The first torchbearer in the relay was Greece's Alexandros Nikolaidis. After the torch left the stadium, a Tibetan woman covered in red paint or dye lay in the road approaching the village of Olympia while other protesters chanted "Free Tibet" and "Shame on China."

Japanese runner Haturi Yuuki came within a few feet of the protester, then stopped and ran in place while plainclothes police removed her. They also dragged off a man accompanying her who was waving a Tibetan flag.

Police said the woman and the three members of Reporters Without Borders were being detained. One of the men arrested was Robert Menard, the group's general secretary.

The three Frenchmen were charged with the misdemeanor count of offending national symbols. They were released pending trial in late May, and said they hoped to return to France on Tuesday.

"We're asking the heads of government to boycott the opening ceremony," one of the three protesters, Vincent Brossel, told AP Television News. "We're not calling for a boycott of the games."

Tsering Palden, president of the New York-based Tibetan Youth Congress, said Tibetan activist groups will urge Coca-Cola this week to pull its sponsorship of the Olympic Games.

Coca-Cola Co. spokeswoman Kerry Kerr said the company remained committed to supporting the torch relay and "joins others in expressing deep concern for the situation on the ground in Tibet."

China has promised a smooth run-up to the Summer Games and is hoping a successful games will bolster its international image.

"The more determined the Dalai clique is to ruin the torch relay and the Olympic Games, the more hard and good work we need to do on the preparation and the implementation of all aspects," Yin Xunping, a Communist Party official, was quoted as saying by the Tibet Daily newspaper. Yin is party secretary of the Tibet Mountain Climbing Team, which is participating in the Mount Everest segment of the torch relay.

In Nepal, police in the capital of Katmandu broke up at least two separate protests by Tibetan refugees and monks and arrested as many as 475 protesters, officials said.

Chanting "China, stop killings in Tibet. U.N., we want justice," protesters were marching to U.N. headquarters in Katmandu when police stopped them about 300 feet away and snatched their banners.


Associated Press writers Audra Ang and Tini Tran in Beijing, Binaj Gurubacharya in Katmandu, Nepal, Nesha Starcevic in Frankfurt, Germany, Angela Doland in Paris, Tariq Panja in London, and AP Television News staff in Greece contributed to this report.


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Tibet protesters disrupt Olympic flame ceremony

This article was first published on guardian.co.uk on Monday March 24 2008. It was last updated at 12:32 on March 25 2008.
Tibet protest at Olympia

Pro-Tibetan protesters today disturbed a high security ceremony to light the Olympic flame in Greece.

International dignitaries were gathered at Olympia, the site of the ancient Olympics, when three members of the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders ran onto the field to disrupt a speech by Liu Qi, president of the Beijing organising committee and Beijing Communist party secretary.

The demonstrator who got nearest to Liu Qi was carrying a banner showing the Olympic Rings as handcuffs but failed to unfurl it before being arrested.

Police detained the men along with a Tibetan campaigner and a Greek photographer travelling with him in the nearby village of Olympia, just outside the site of the ancient Games.

Lhadon Tethong, director of Students for a Free Tibet, said the men were taken to the local police station. "One of our colleagues saw them being dragged by about 20 police through town," she said.

"If the Olympic flame is sacred, human rights are even more so," Reporters Without Borders said in a statement. "We cannot let the Chinese government seize the Olympic flame, a symbol of peace, without denouncing the dramatic situation of human rights in the country."

When the incident took place, Chinese state TV cut away to a pre-recorded scene, preventing Chinese viewers from seeing the protest. TV commentators on Chinese TV did not mention the incident.

After the arrest of the men the ceremony went ahead smoothly. Actor Maria Nafpliotou, dressed as a high priestess, used a convex mirror to catch the sun's rays and light the Olympic flame.

International Olympic committee president Jacques Rogge attended the ceremony and said afterwards: "It's always sad when there are protests. But they were not violent and I think that's the important thing."

Once lit, Nafpliotou handed the torch to Alexandros Nikolaidis, who won a silver medal in taekwondo at the 2004 Athens Games but the progress of the flame was hindered by protestors along its route.

Several pro-Tibet demonstrators, including a Tibetan woman whose body had been painted red, lay down on the road in the athelete's path.

A total 645 torchbearers will carry the flame for a week over 950 miles through Greece. It will make a stopover at the Acropolis before being handed over to Chinese officials at the Athens stadium where the first modern Olympics were held in 1896.

The flame will travel 85,000 miles across five continents to reach the Olympic stadium in Beijing on August 8.

Demonstrations continued today in countries neighbouring Tibet. In northeast India, police stopped nearly 500 Tibetan exiles from marching to the Chinese border to demand a halt to China's crackdown on protesters in Tibet.

Police blocked their entry into the state of Sikkim that borders China, said an officer, Sonam Bhutia. The protesters carried Tibetan flags and chanted slogans demanding they be allowed to go to Tibet.

"We have barricaded the road and we shall not allow the Tibetans to continue the march," Bhutia told the Associated Press.

The Tibetans living in India's northeast began their march on Thursday from the state of West Bengal and planned to enter China using the Nathu La pass in Sikkim.

"The goal of the marchers is to fight shoulder to shoulder with Tibetans inside Tibet," said Ugyen Tsewang, general secretary of the Northeast Tibetan Youth Congress, which organized the march.

"We haven't given up our effort yet. We are persuading the state authorities to allow us continue our march," Tsewang said by phone from Rongpo, a town in West Bengal state.

"We will start a hunger strike if the state authorities don't accept our demand," he said.

"We want to confront the Chinese police and not the Indian police."
Protests started on March 10 in the Tibetan capital of Lhasa on the 49th anniversary of a failed uprising against Chinese rule.

They turned violent four days later, touching off demonstrations among Tibetans in three neighbouring Chinese provinces.

Beijing's official death toll from the protests is 22, but the Tibetan government-in-exile in India has said 99 Tibetans have been killed.

India has generally allowed the Tibetan exiles to protest peacefully, but earlier this month detained several dozen protesters who had planned a separate march from northern India to Tibet to coincide with the opening of the Beijing Olympics, saying India would not tolerate actions that embarrassed China.

· This article was amended on Tuesday March 25 2008. In the article above we originally referred to Lhadon Tethong as a man. This has been corrected.

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