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Archive for Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Ceremonial Olympic torch facing rough road to China

Policemen detain a protester as he holds a banner at the beginning of the flame-lighting ceremony for the Beijing 2008 games in ancient Olympia, Greece. The flame for the Aug. 8-24 Beijing Olympics was lit using the sun's rays Monday in Olympia, but protests by press freedom and pro-Tibet groups disrupted the ceremony.

Policemen detain a protester as he holds a banner at the beginning of the flame-lighting ceremony for the Beijing 2008 games in ancient Olympia, Greece. The flame for the Aug. 8-24 Beijing Olympics was lit using the sun's rays Monday in Olympia, but protests by press freedom and pro-Tibet groups disrupted the ceremony.

March 25, 2008

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— The head of Beijing's Olympic committee had just started his speech. The high priestesses in flowing robes were waiting to start the ancient ceremony to kindle the Olympic flame.

Suddenly, a protester evaded tight security, ran behind Beijing Olympic chief Liu Qi, and held up a black banner showing the Olympic rings as handcuffs. Liu stopped briefly, then continued, while uniformed Greek police dragged the protester away.

What was supposed to have marked the symbolic, joyous countdown to the Beijing Games began Monday with a statement against China's human rights policies and crackdown in Tibet - foreshadowing the prospect of other protests and disruptions right up until the Aug. 8 start of the Olympics.

Forecasts of clouds and rain had been considered the main threat to the pomp-filled torch-lighting ceremony, which included Greek actresses portraying high priestesses and a special mirror to light the flame. 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 for China over its crackdown in Tibet and other rights issues.

Three men advocating press freedom 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 85,000-mile, 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.

China's communist leadership has faced a public relations disaster since protests of its 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 today that the toll was near 140. 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 again urged China to start talks with him in order to begin a dialogue that "is going to be the only policy that is sustainable in Tibet."

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