Protests disrupt Olympic ceremony

(AP) - The prospect of demonstrations throughout the 85,000-mile Olympic torch relay route leading to the Beijing games loomed Tuesday, a day after protesters of China's human rights policies disrupted the solemn flame-lighting ceremony.

Forecasts of clouds and rain had been considered the main threat to the pomp-filled torch-lighting. But it was the protesters who turned the joyful bow to the Olympics' roots into a political statement about China's crackdown in Tibet and other rights issues.

Three men advocating press freedom evaded massive security and ran onto the field at the ceremony in Ancient Olympia before they were seized by police. Minutes later, a Tibetan woman covered in fake blood briefly blocked the path of the torch relay.

The incidents came after International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge told The Associated Press in an interview that he was engaged in "silent diplomacy" with the Chinese but wouldn't intervene in politics to try to change their policies.

"We are discussing on a daily basis with Chinese authorities, including discussing these issues, while strictly respecting the sovereignty of China in its affairs," Rogge said.

Protests are bound to follow the torch throughout its 136-day route across five continents and 20 countries. China pledged strict security measures to ensure its segment of the relay won't be marred by protests.

Tibetan activists have already said they plan to demonstrate elsewhere on the route.

"Later we will do protests in London and Paris," said Tenzin Dorjee, a member of Students for a Free Tibet who protested in Ancient Olympia.

Protests of China's rule turned violent March 14 in the Tibetan capital of Lhasa, sparking waves of unrest in surrounding provinces. China reported a death toll of 22 from the violence, but Tibet's exiled government says about 140 Tibetans were killed. Nineteen died in subsequent violence in Gansu province, it said.

A rising chorus of international criticism and floated calls for a boycott have unnerved the Chinese leadership, which has turned up efforts to put its own version of the unrest before the international public. China has blamed the riots on followers of the Dalai Lama, Tibet's exiled spiritual leader.

State-controlled Chinese media made no mention of it after a protester evaded security and ran up behind Beijing Olympic organizing committee President Liu Qi as he was giving his speech during Monday's ceremony.

The image and the report of the protester unfurling a black banner - the Olympic rings replaced by handcuffs - appeared around the world in newspapers, on Web sites and on television broadcasts. But not in China.

Luciano Barra, deputy CEO of the 2006 Winter Games in Turin, recalled how the torch relay in Italy was dogged by protesters opposed to construction of a rail tunnel. Organizers diverted the route at one stage to avoid the demonstrators.

"It makes me laugh compared to the current problem," Barra said.

Another potential flashpoint is the route through Tibet. The flame is due to be carried to the summit of Mount Everest in May and pass through Lhasa in June.

"The very idea that they will be able to parade the torch through Tibet after the crackdown is obscene given what's going on in Tibet," said Anne Holmes, acting director of the London-based Free Tibet campaign.

Tibetan groups have also urged the IOC to keep the relay out of the Himalayan region. Rogge, speaking before the incidents, said there were no plans by Beijing organizers, known as BOCOG, to change the route, but he did not rule it out.

The IOC has faced calls to take a hard line with China. But Rogge reiterated his long-standing position that the Olympic body is not a political organization.

"The IOC is engaged in what I call a 'silent diplomacy' with Chinese authorities since Day One of the preparations of the games," Rogge said.

The first torchbearer in the relay was Greece's Alexandros Nikolaidis. After the torch left the stadium, a Tibetan woman covered in red paint or dye lay in the road approaching the village of Olympia while other protesters chanted "Free Tibet" and "Shame on China."

Japanese runner Haturi Yuuki came within a few feet of the protester, then stopped and ran in place while plainclothes police removed her. They also dragged off a man accompanying her who was waving a Tibetan flag.

Police said the woman and the three members of Reporters Without Borders were detained. One of the men arrested was Robert Menard, the group's general secretary.

The three Frenchmen were charged with the misdemeanor count of offending national symbols. They were released pending trial in late May, and said they hoped to return to France on Tuesday.

"We're asking the heads of government to boycott the opening ceremony," one of the three protesters, Vincent Brossel, told AP Television News. "We're not calling for a boycott of the games."

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