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Olympic torch ignites wild protests

April 8, 2008

Raucous crowds disrupt its tour of London over China rights record

By KIM MURPHY and GERALDINE BAUM
Los Angeles Times
April 6, 2008

LONDON — The Olympic torch made its way under heavy police guard through
31 miles of raucous protests across London on Sunday, amid mounting
calls for European leaders to boycott the Games' opening ceremonies in
Beijing to protest China's record on human rights.

With shouts of "Free Tibet!" and "Shame on China!" from the crowds, the
torch occasionally had to be sheltered on a bus while police scuffled
with demonstrators who leapt in to halt the parade. In one case, a
protester briefly grabbed the torch; in another, a man in a yellow
jacket opened fire at the torch with an extinguisher.

Chinese counterdemonstrators waved their nation's red-and-gold banner
and shouted "shame on you!" at the protesters who swept into the street
and paraded near the British Museum.

There were at least 35 arrests on a snowy spring day that helped turn
parts of central London into temporary bedlam.

Focus on Tibet

The protests highlight Europe's growing unease with supporting the
Olympics in the face of the Chinese authorities' brutal crackdown in
Tibet last month and its harsh criticism of exiled Tibetan leader the
Dalai Lama. Critics also cite China's record of stifling general
dissent, including the arrests of 31 journalists.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy became the first European leader to
raise the possibility of not attending the Aug. 8 opening ceremonies in
Beijing.

"Our Chinese friends must understand the worldwide concern that there is
about the question of Tibet, and I will adapt my response to the
evolutions in the situation that will come, I hope, as rapidly as
possible," Sarkozy said last month, asserting he does "not close the
door to any possibility" when asked about a boycott.

Officials and politicians in Germany, the Czech Republic, Estonia and
Poland have come out in favor of skipping the opening ceremonies.

"Beijing has to decide: It should immediately start negotiations with
the Dalai Lama. If not, I consider a boycott justified," Hans-Gert
Poettering, the German president of the European Parliament, told the
German weekly Bild am Sonntag last month. "We do want successful Games,
but not at the price of a cultural genocide of the Tibetans."

Opposition to boycott

A boycott appears to have substantial public backing across Europe.
However, it has not attracted widespread endorsement among government
leaders who have misgivings about alienating an important trade partner
and boycotting an event that is supposed to symbolize international harmony.

In Italy, Olympic committee President Gianni Petrucci said his nation's
participation is "not up for discussion — there are athletes who have
been training for this for four years." Silvio Berlusconi, the likely
prime minister after this month's elections, said the athletes are free
to make their own decisions, but the Olympics should be considered an
opportunity "to take a little bit of freedom" to China.

In Britain, which plans to host the 2012 Summer Olympics, Prime Minister
Gordon Brown has stated that he will be in Beijing on Aug. 8 — drawing
immediate condemnation from an opposition leader.

Brown also has agreed to meet the Dalai Lama, who will be in London in
May. The move is certain to antagonize China, which seized control of
the Himalayan region of Tibet in 1951. China's crackdown last month was
triggered by sometimes violent protests against its rule.

"I think we have got to bear in mind that although there has been a huge
amount of controversy now surrounding the Olympics, because of what has
been happening in Tibet, the Dalai Lama himself has made it clear that
he does not want ... there to be a boycott of the Olympics," Brown said.
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