RPT-Olympic torch starts controversial Tibet leg

(Repeats to add link to Olympics website, blog)

LHASA, China, June 21 (Reuters) - The Beijing Olympic torch began passing through Tibet's capital Lhasa on Saturday in a three-hour display of Chinese national unity that organisers hope will wipe aside memories of unrest there three months ago.

The torch relay began under tight security at Luobulinka, a traditional square where Tibetan mountaineer Googbu held the flame aloft. It will arrive at about midday (0400 GMT) below the towering Potala palace.

"We are convinced that the Beijing Olympic Games' torch relay in Lhasa will further inflame the patriotic spirit of the people," Lhasa's Communist Party boss Qin Yizhi said at the opening ceremony, adding it would also help "smash the scheming of the Dalai Lama clique".

The Beijing Games torch has never been far from controversy, and never more so than in its run through the streets of this 3,650-metre (12,000 feet) high city.

Police and troops lined the streets, carefully watching the groups of residents chosen to cheer on the torch. Groups of students from Lhasa University waved Olympic banners, the Chinese national flag, as well as the hammer and sickle banner of the ruling Communist Party.

But some students seemed hesitant in giving an answer when asked of the meaning of the torch passing through Tibet.

For many exiled Tibetans and human rights groups, the Lhasa torch relay serves as a reminder of China's overbearing influence.

"This provocative decision -- with the blessing of the International Olympic Committee -- could aggravate tensions and undermine the fragile process to find a peaceful long-term solution for Tibet and the region," said Human Rights in China Executive Director Sharon Hom.

But for many Chinese, outraged by the March unrest and then the protests against China's rule in Tibet that dogged the international stage of the torch relay, the Lhasa stop of the torch is a moment of vindication.

"The torch is a symbol of China and Tibet is an inseparable part of China," said Chen Tao, a Han Chinese student who was cheering on the relay.

Baima Chilin, a vice chairman of Tibet's government, said supporters of the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan Buddhist leader, wanted to upset the passage of the torch through the Lhasa, where protests and riots challenged Chinese control in March.

But he said he was sure the torch relay would not be troubled by protest, and called the relay a symbol of ethnic unity. "People of all ethnic groups in Lhasa greet the Olympic torch relay with immeasurable joy," he told a news conference on Friday.

The rings of security surrounding the torch were a constant reminder that even the government fears such joy is not universal.

The Lhasa relay has been drastically shortened from the 27 kilometres first planned to nine kilometres, and will have 156 torch bearers, including 75 ethnic Tibetans and 77 Han Chinese, Dekyi Drolkar of the regional sports authority said.

Matt Whitticase of the London-based Free Tibet Campaign, which supports self-determination for the region, said making phone calls into Lhasa had become increasingly difficult as authorities sought to clamp down on potential protest around the torch. (For more stories visit our multimedia website "Road to Beijing"


; and see our blog at