March 25, 2008 / 8:37 AM / 12 years ago

Torch protest was "disgraceful", says China

BEIJING (Reuters) - China has criticized human rights demonstrators who disrupted the Greek torch lighting ceremony for the Beijing Olympics as being “disgraceful”.

A pro-Tibet protester holds a placard referring to the Olympic torch relay passing through Tibet, during a demonstration outside the United Nations headquarters in New York, March 24, 2008. REUTERS/Mike Segar

Just before the torch was lit on Monday 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.

“The Olympic torch symbolizes humankind’s noble ideals and beautiful aspirations, and anyone who disturbs or sabotages the Olympic torch relay is disgraceful and lacks support,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang told a news briefing on Tuesday.

“The one who should feel embarrassed is not China, but these elements of sabotage and chaos,” Qin said.

Exiled Tibetans had pledged to demonstrate against a security crackdown in Tibet and parts of western China following a wave of anti-government protests that have highlighted discontent with Communist rule in those areas.

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.

China had hoped the torch’s travel around the world and throughout the country would be a symbol of national unity ahead of the Games, which open on August 8.

“PERFECT START”

Chinese media has made no mention of the disruption to the ceremony in ancient Olympia, with newspapers instead devoting several pages to lavish descriptions of the event.

“At that moment, my heart was beating so hard!” the Beijing News quoted Quan Maoda, the father of a torch bearer from Inner Mongolia, as saying of the lighting.

Newspapers made much of the fact that the sun came out for the ceremony in Ancient Olympia, after overcast rehearsals.

“A perfect start on the road to gold,” read one headline in the China Daily.

“Each day we will pay attention to the torch, deeply knowing that day by day the Olympics are coming closer to us,” the Beijing News quoted Zhu Yuetao, an official in the port city of Qingdao, which will host the sailing events, as saying.

The torch is set to travel twice to Tibet, where a March 14 riot capped days of peaceful marches against Chinese rule in the largely Buddhist, mountain region — once when it scales Mt Everest in early May, and in June when it goes to the capital, Lhasa.

New York-based Human Rights Watch said the torch should not go through Tibet unless China agrees to an independent investigation into the unrest there.

Foreign journalists have been barred from the region, and, following the riot, tourists were advised to leave.

“Either Tibet is open or it’s not. If it is, let independent monitors and the media go there. If it’s not, the torch shouldn’t go either,” Sophie Richardson, Asia advocacy director for the group, said in a statement.

China has vowed the torch relay through the region and up Mt Everest will go ahead, but Human Rights Watch said the event could invite new protests, which would provoke further repression.

(Reporting by Chris Buckley and Lindsay Beck)

"Countdown to Beijing Olympics" blog at blogs.reuters.com/china

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