Protesters disrupt Olympic flame-lighting ceremony

GREECE (AP) – 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 embarrassment for China over its 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 (IOC) 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,” Tenzin Dorjee, a member of Students for a Free Tibet who protested in Ancient Olympia, said.

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 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 again urged China to start talks with him to begin a dialogue that “is going to be the only policy that is sustainable in Tibet.”

Edward Friedman, a China specialist at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, said he expects Beijing to rally national pride by attacking its critics.

“My speculation would be that the conversation within the ruling group, the first thing they’d likely say is that people are out to tarnish China’s image,” he said. “The speed of this one coming at them makes one worry that this group’s first instinct is not very helpful. They’re much more likely to be pulling the bridge on the moat and manning the castles and battlements.”

Friedman said he expects China to put pressure on other countries to stay neutral and “to not do things to politicize the Olympics.”

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.

“It’s crucial for everyone who works in the Tibetan movement to emphasize to the public and get the message to the Chinese government that the Olympic torch should not be allowed to go up Mount Everest and through Tibet,” Anne Holmes, acting director of the London-based Free Tibet campaign said. “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.”

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. But as the games approach, various groups have used the Olympics to leverage their causes.

Apart from Tibet, China has come under international criticism for support of Sudan and its role in Darfur.

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.

“If the Olympic flame is sacred, human rights are even more so,” the French group said. “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 state TV cut away from the protest and showed a prerecorded scene, preventing Chinese viewers from seeing the incident. 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.

“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.”

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

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

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.