- The Washington Times - Monday, March 24, 2008

ANCIENT OLYMPIA, Greece (AP) — Protesters disrupted the Beijing Olympics flame-lighting ceremony in Ancient Olympia today and a Tibetan woman covered in fake blood briefly blocked the path of the torchbearer.

Protesters ran onto the stadium field during the ceremony, evading massive security aimed at preventing such disruptions in the wake of China’s crackdown on Tibet.

One man ran behind Liu Qi, president of the Beijing organizing committee and Beijing Communist Party Secretary, as Liu was giving a speech. The protester unfurled a black banner showing the Olympic rings as handcuffs.

Three protesters from the Paris-based press freedom group Reporters Without Borders face misdemeanor charges of disrespectful behavior at a public event. Police said the men, who had been accredited to attend the ceremony as journalists, were being held in the nearby town of Pyrgos.

“If the Olympic flame is sacred, human rights are even more so,” the Paris-based group 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.”

China’s Communist leadership has faced a public relations disaster since demonstrations against Chinese rule turned violent March 14 in the Tibetan capital of Lhasa, leading to waves of unrest in surrounding provinces. People who sympathize with the Tibetan cause have also staged rallies in other countries.

The death toll from the violence in Tibet has varied and been impossible to confirm independently. China’s reported death toll is 22, but Tibet’s exiled government says 80 Tibetans were killed. Another 19 died in subsequent violence in Gansu province, it said.

Greek officials said politics have no place at the ceremony at the 2,800-year-old birthplace of the ancient games in southern Greece. More than 1,000 police were deployed ahead of expected protests by pro-Tibetan groups.

“The Greek government condemns every attempt to interfere with the ceremony for the lighting of the Olympic flame, through actions that have no relation at all with the Olympic Spirit,” government spokesman Evangelos Antonaros said.

China state TV cut away from the protest at the ceremony and showed a prerecorded scene, preventing Chinese viewers from seeing the incident. Chinese television commentators did not mention the demonstration.

The flame for the Aug. 8-24 games was lit using the sun’s rays. From Olympia, the flame will embark on an 85,000-mile journey. The torch is to arrive March 31 in Beijing. It then will travel through 20 countries before returning to mainland China.

As teenage torchbearer Haturi Yuuki of Japan approached the village of ancient Olympia, a Tibetan woman covered in red paint or dye lay in the road while other protesters chanted “Free Tibet” and “Shame on China.”

Yuuki came within a few feet of the protester, then stopped and ran in place while plainclothes police officers arrested the woman. Police also dragged off a man accompanying her who was waving a Tibetan flag.

Separately, six other protesters from pro-Tibet groups were briefly detained and released, police said.

A Czech member of the Students for a Free Tibet, said he was wrestled to the ground by police.

“They threw me on the ground and started kicking me,” said the man, who would only give his first name, Stanislav.

Lampis Nikolaou, a Greek member of the IOC, called the protests a disgrace.

“I am furious with these people … who did not respect this site. Whatever their differences with China, they should express them in their own countries,” Nikolaou said.

Chinese media reported that officials — who have blamed the unrest on the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama — were prepared to prevent disruptions of the torch relay when it crosses China’s borders.

China’s plans to take the torch through Tibet and to the top of Mount Everest have upset Tibetan activist groups, which accuse Beijing of using the event to convey a false message of harmony in the troubled Himalayan region. Chinese Communist troops occupied Tibet in 1951 and Beijing continues to rule the region with a heavy hand.

“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.

The official Xinhua News Agency, did not give any details of what measures would be taken for the relay. A receptionist at the Tibet sports bureau said no officials were available for comment today.

Mount Everest straddles the border between Nepal and Tibet. China has already begun denying mountaineers permission to climb the Tibetan side of the mountain — a move that reflects government concerns that activists may try to disrupt its torch plans.

International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge told the Associated Press today that he was engaged in “silent diplomacy” with China on Tibet and other human rights issues.

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

But he also said there was no credible momentum for a boycott and that while he was concerned by the violence in Tibet, the IOC could do no more than call for a peaceful resolution because it is a sports organization.

Germany rejected calls for an Olympic boycott today. Some German athletes had reacted to the Chinese crackdown by supporting the calls for a boycott.

The German Olympic Sports Union said it was following the events in Tibet with “great attention and concern” but pledged to send a team to the games.

In Nepal, police in the capital Katmandu broke up at least two separate protests by Tibetan refugees and monks today 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.

Meanwhile, French President Nicolas Sarkozy offered France as a go-between in any new talks between China and the representatives of the Dalai Lama. Sarkozy called for “restraint” in Tibet and to end the violence with dialogue.

A Liberation newspaper poll published today suggests most French people want Sarkozy to boycott the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics this summer to protest China’s human rights situation, but think French athletes should compete.

Associated Press writers Audra Ang in Beijing, Stephen Wilson in Ancient Olympia, Greece, Binaj Gurubacharya in Katmandu, Nepal, and Nesha Sarcevic in Frankfurt, Germany, contributed to this report.

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