SEOUL (Reuters) - South Korea has voiced concern to China’s envoy over violent incidents during the Seoul leg of the Olympic torch relay, but Beijing said on Tuesday that the Chinese students were only trying to protect the protest-dogged flame.
South Korean newspapers ran angry editorials denouncing Chinese students who hurled rocks at groups criticizing Beijing’s hosting of the 2008 Olympics, charged into lines of police, beat pro-Tibet protesters and kicked an elderly man.
The justice minister told a cabinet meeting that Sunday’s violence was “seriously regrettable”.
On Monday, South Korea’s foreign ministry lodged a complaint with the Chinese ambassador in Seoul.
“These Chinese students meant well and were friendly and they came to welcome the torch,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu told a news conference in Beijing on Tuesday.
“They did not want any harm to come to the torch, hence some of their actions may have been a little over-excited. The Chinese side expresses its sympathies to police and reporters in South Korea who were hurt in this event.”
The global relay has endured the most tortuous journey of its history, beset by trouble from the moment protesters breached security at the torch-lighting ceremony at Ancient Olympia in Greece last month.
Subsequently, protesters have jostled the torchbearers in London, Paris and San Francisco, and shouted slogans denouncing Beijing’s human rights record, especially in Tibet.
The protests have embarrassed China ahead of August’s Beijing Games, they have prompted some Chinese to call for boycotts of Western businesses, and they have spurred patriotic Chinese abroad to rally behind Beijing during the relay through Asia. On occasions, pro-Chinese supporters have outnumbered protesters.
Thousands of the Chinese students traveled to Seoul from around the country for pro-Beijing rallies in the heart of the city, which was swept up in a sea of red Chinese flags. For the most part, the rallies were spirited but peaceful.
Internet message boards in South Korea, one of the world’s most wired countries, have been flooded with comments saying the pro-Beijing display was in bad taste, did little to send any message of peace and soured the appetite for the Olympics.
“What right do these people have to travel in hordes in a foreign capital, hurling punches and launching kicks at others?” the Chosun Ilbo, South Korea’s biggest daily, said in an editorial.
Some Chinese Internet forums carried first-person accounts and photos by participants of the rallies, who also condemned the violence but said it only took place after verbal taunts and provocation from the anti-China protesters.
(Reporting by Jon Herskovitz and Jack Kim in Seoul and Ben Blanchard in Beijing; Editing by Nick Macfie)