Olympic torch relay starts in South Korea

Other News Materials 27 April 2008 12:12 (UTC +04:00)
Olympic torch relay starts in   South Korea

The Beijing Olympic torch on Sunday began the South Korean leg of its troubled worldwide relay, with thousands of police deployed to block threatened protests, the AFP reported.

But pro-China demonstrators vastly outnumbered protesters at Olympic Park in southeastern Seoul where the relay began around 2.20 pm (0520 GMT), an AFP correspondent reported.

Thousands of Chinese gave a huge cheer as the tightly guarded relay began, accompanied by 60 track-suited police runners. Another 60 will take over at the half-way point of the 24-kilometre (15-mile) relay route.

In Hong Kong Three human rights activists planning to protest when the Beijing Olympic torch relay comes through Hong Kong have been barred from entering the territory, a report said Sunday.

The three, including Danish sculptor Jens Galschiot, were detained for several hours on arrival Saturday and then flown out of the southern Chinese city later the same day, the Sunday Morning Post said.

The three belonged to a group called the Colour Orange and were planning to protest human rights violations in China when the torch makes its way through the city on Friday.

In Seoul two police helicopters circled Olympic park and thousands of regular and riot police officers were deployed in the area, vastly outnumbering scattered groups of protesters at the park.

A coalition of 63 rights, religious and conservative groups have said thousands are expected to take to the streets in protest.

"Police will maintain watertight security to make sure that everything goes smoothly," a senior official handling the security told AFP on Sunday.

"Police will immediately arrest anyone who tries to stop or disrupt the Olympic torch relay. We will deal sternly with such cases."

The flame arrived at Seoul's Incheon airport early Sunday, amid tight security. No disruption was reported with hundreds of police at the airport.

The torch landed from Japan where protesters hurled rubbish and flares during its run on Saturday and brawled with Chinese supporters. At least four people were injured in the scuffles in the mountain resort of Nagano.

Earlier legs were also hit by protests, particularly in London and Paris, angering China which had hoped the worldwide relay would be symbolic of its rising status and pride in hosting the August Games.

Activists protesting against China's crackdown in Tibet and its policy of repatriating North Korean refugees have promised similar scenes in South Korea.

North Korean defectors plan to block bridges over the broad Han River, which the runners are scheduled to use. "We're going to try to stop the relay at all costs," Han Chang-Kwon, who represents a defectors' group, said Friday.

"We have prepared several units of defectors who will desperately try to stop the progress of the relay when it crosses one of the main bridges."

Human Rights Watch, a US-based rights group, said Seoul should use the occasion to urge Beijing to change its policy of repatriating North Korean refugees, who can face harsh punishment or even death on their return.

Many of the thousands of Chinese studying or working in South Korea also plan to turn out but they will welcome the torch, said Liu Yen of the Chinese Resident's Association Seoul Korea.

"We'll hold welcoming placards high and wave our national flags," she told Yonhap news agency Friday.

Dozens of activists rallied Saturday near Olympic Park ahead of the relay.

"We're going to try to stop the relay," said refugee Choi Hye-Jeong, who tearfully added she was tortured by North Korean authorities when Chinese officials forced her to return to her country several years ago.

"I get enraged every time I think of what they did to me. I won't let this relay happen as planned," she told Yonhap.

Human rights lawyer Kim Sang-Chul said China has repatriated some 75,000 North Koreans over the last 15 years and vowed to stop the torch.

" China tries to promote itself as a civilised nation but what it's doing to the defectors is uncivilised," he said.

The torch heads late Sunday to North Korea, a close ally of China that has strongly criticised the overseas protests.