March 24, 2008 / 9:54 AM / 11 years ago

Protest mars Beijing torch lighting ceremony

ANCIENT OLYMPIA, Greece (Reuters) - Human rights demonstrators breached tight security and tried to hijack the Beijing Olympic torch lighting ceremony and relay in ancient Olympia on Monday.

A pro-Tibet demonstrator is arrested during a speech by Chinese Olympic Committee President Liu Qi at the Olympic flame lighting ceremony for the Beijing 2008 Games at the site of ancient Olympia in Greece, March 24, 2008. REUTERS/Mal Langsdon

Just before the torch was lit inside the archaeological site that played host to the Olympics in ancient Greece, three demonstrators managed to break a tight police cordon.

One of them, carrying a black banner with five interlocked handcuffs in the pattern of the Olympic rings, approached Beijing Games chief Liu Qi during his speech in front of hundreds of officials but was quickly led away by police.

Liu did not get distracted by the commotion and continued his speech, while television footage immediately cut away from the incident.

“The Olympic flame will radiate light and happiness, peace and friendship, and hope and dreams to the people of China and the whole world,” Liu told the assembled crowd.

Exiled Tibetans had pledged to demonstrate against China’s security crackdown in the region and what they say is the IOC’s hesitancy to pressure Beijing to improve its human rights record.

Press freedom group Reporters Without Borders (known by its French acronym RSF) said three of its members had tried to stage the protest on Monday.

“If the Olympic flame is sacrificed, human rights are even more so,” the group said in a statement on its Web site (www.rsf.org/).

“We cannot let the Chinese government seize the Olympic flame, a symbol of peace without condemning the dramatic human rights situation.”

RSF secretary general Robert Menard unfurled a second black banner from the VIP area where he was seated.

DEMONSTRATORS RELEASED

The detained three demonstrators were released late on Monday after a prosecutor charged them with offending public sentiment without provocation, a misdemeanor. Their trial date will be set soon, police said.

Smaller protests also took place during the first few kilometers of the relay leading to another six people being detained. Police said a total of nine people were briefly detained.

“It is always sad to see such a ceremony disrupted,” International Olympic Committee (IOC) president Jacques Rogge told reporters.

IOC vice president Lambis Nikolaou, a Greek, was outraged by the disruption.

“I am furious with the fact that these people did not respect the site they were on,” Nikolaou told reporters. “Whatever differences they have with China, they should express them in their country and not ours. This is a disgrace.”

Despite the incident, the actress Maria Nafpliotou playing the high priestess used a break in the clouds to light the torch from the sun’s rays in front of the Temple of Hera.

The globally televised ceremony marked the start of a five-month international torch relay, that will include Tibet and the peak of Mount Everest before ending in Beijing on August 8 when the Games officially open.

RELAY PROTESTS

Relay runners along the main street through Olympia were briefly held up when several demonstrators lay in front of the convoy of cars.

Others wore Free Tibet T-shirts and a large banner was hanging from one of the buildings.

“They managed to hold up the relay very briefly at three different parts of the high street,” a Reuters photographer said.

Greece’s government condemned the protests.

“The Greek government condemns any effort to interfere with the traditional torch relay especially with actions that have nothing to do with the Olympic spirit,” government spokesman Evangelos Antonaros told Reuters.

A senior regional police official told Reuters the relay was now progressing smoothly.

Police said an additional 25 protesters had attempted to come in but a strong police presence kept them at bay before they dispersed.

Police said they had also detained Tibetan activist Tenzin Dorjee of the Students for Free Tibet group in Olympia.

He was not part of the protest inside the stadium.

“I was just arrested by over 20 Greek undercover officers. I am now held at the police station,” he told Reuters.

Slideshow (23 Images)

Greek athlete Alexandros Nikolaidis, an Athens 2004 Games taekwondo silver medalist, was the first torchbearer starting a six-day Greek relay before the flame arrives in Beijing on March 31. China’s only Athens 2004 Games swimming gold medalist Luo Xuejuan was the second runner.

“I express here the hope that the symbol of the torch will be recognized by everybody and that the right circumstances can be created, wherever the torch travels, for it to resonate,” Rogge said in a speech inside the ancient stadium.

(Additional reporting by George Georgiopoulos, Dina Kyriakidou in Athens and Kevin Coombs, Deborah Kyvrikosaios in Olympia)

Editing by Ed Osmond

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