BEIJING (Reuters) - Protesters angered over China’s crackdown in Tibet marched in San Francisco ahead of the Olympic torch’s arrival on Wednesday, but Olympics chief Jacques Rogge said there are no plans to cut short a global relay.
The torch will be carried through the West coast city during the flame’s only U.S. stop, and activists fuelled by anger about Beijing’s policies in Tibet and its reaction to deadly rioting in the Himalayan region last month are gathering for protests.
Several hundred paraded through the city’s streets on the eve of the torch procession, many carrying Tibetan flags and signs and chanting “Shame on China”.
Hours later in western China, a group of Buddhist monks interrupted a state-sponsored media tour of a Tibetan region, demanding the return of the Dalai Lama and yelling that they had no human rights, a move that could inflame overseas activists.
Authorities in San Francisco, which is famous for its demonstrations, already feared a repeat of aggressive tactics that marred the relay in London and Paris. An Olympic official said he also worried people could be injured in the confusion.
But Rogge told the Wall Street Journal that reports the International Olympic Committee executive board would consider scrapping the torch relay outside China, to avoid more ugly scenes, were “based on a misunderstanding”.
“I am saddened that such a beautiful symbol of the torch, which unites people of different religions, different ethnic origin, different political systems, cultures and languages, has been attacked,” Rogge said of the disruptions.
The troubled procession has kept Tibet in the international headlines, and become a magnet for other groups unhappy about a range of China-related issues, from its involvement in Sudan’s Darfur region to its treatment of animal rights.
Beijing fiercely condemned the protests, and they have stirred up patriotic resentment among many ordinary Chinese who feel they politicize a sporting event that should be a celebration of 30 years of economic development and opening to the outside world.
Western leaders are facing a delicate balancing act as calls mount for them to boycott the opening ceremony, though there have been no serious suggestions that athletes should skip the Games.
Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said in a speech to Chinese students that it was important to recognize that there were “significant human rights problems” in Tibet, although he did not back calls for a boycott of the Beijing Olympics.
“I believe the Olympics are important for China’s continuing engagement with the world,” Rudd said, according to a transcript of the speech made on Wednesday.
Asked to comment, Tibet’s Governor Qiangba Puncog said the human rights of more than 95 percent of Tibetans have never been better and that the remarks of some leaders were unnecessary.
The government-in-exile has said about 140 Tibetan protesters were killed in a government crackdown, but Qiangba Puncog said the list of names was fabricated. China says 19 “innocent” civilians were killed by Tibetan mobs.
Sita, a Communist Party vice-minister responsible for co-opting ethnic minorities, said the door for dialogue between China and the Dalai Lama’s envoys was open but the riots had undermined “basic conditions and atmosphere” for talks.
Police have detained 953 suspected rioters, he said.
Qiangba Puncog told a news conference that they were a “tiny minority” who do not represent Tibetans or their Buddhist clergy.
China blames the Dalai Lama, Tibet’s exiled spiritual leader, and his associates for orchestrating monk-led protests which later turned violent as part of a campaign for independence. The Dalai Lama denies the claims.
But even as Qiangba Puncog was speaking in Beijing, 15 Tibetan Buddhist monks interrupted a state-sponsored tour of the Labrang monastery in Xiahe, in Gansu province, to tell journalists that they were not seeking independence but did want to see their leader.
“The Dalai Lama has to come back to Tibet. We are not asking for Tibetan independence, we are just asking for human rights, we have no human rights now,” one monk told the reporters in Chinese as his companions covered their faces with robes.
It was the second such incident in the past month.
Qiangba Puncog also warned that anyone who tried to disrupt the torch’s journey through Tibet -- including a bid to take it up the world’s highest mountain -- faced heavy punishment.
“If someone dares to sabotage the torch relay in Tibet and its scaling of Mount Everest, we will seriously punish him and will not be soft-handed,” said Qiangba Puncog.
Additional reporting by Guo Shipeng and Nick Mulvenney in Beijing, Lucy Hornby in Xiahe, Adam Tanner in San Francisco, and John Ruwitch in Hong Kong; Writing by Emma Graham-Harrison; Editing by Ken Wills and Sanjeev Miglani