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Protesters disrupt Seoul torch relay

April 28, 2008

SEOUL, South Korea: 27 April 2008 (CNN) -- The Olympic flame completed
the 17th leg of its protest-plagued global relay in Seoul, South Korea,
Sunday -- with Chinese students vastly outnumbering demonstrators.

A man doused himself with gasoline and tried to set himself on fire --
but was stopped by police.

Scuffles broke out several times along the route between demonstrators
and Chinese students waving their country's red flag.

At least 8,000 riot police were deployed to guard the 15-mile (24 km)
route, which started at Olympic Park, built when Seoul hosted the Summer
Games in 1988, and winds down at City Hall in central Seoul.

As the runners carried the torch through the streets of Seoul, three
rows of guards flanked them on each side.

"They will try their best to prevent any kind of intervention," said Gi
Hyung Keum, spokesman for the South Korean Ministry of Culture, Sports
and Tourism.

South Korea is no stranger to demonstrations. Police have successfully
handled large crowds, such as recent protests against the country
signing a free trade agreement with the United States.

After Seoul was granted the 1988 Games, massive pro-democracy
demonstrations broke out, prompting the then-military government to
enact sweeping reforms. Among them was the decision to hold direct
presidential elections.

"I respect people's rights to protest, to have their say. But this is
not the venue for various people to express their political interests,"
said Kim Sang-Woo of the Korean Olympic Committee.

An hour before the start of the relay, thousands of Chinese students
thronged the park plaza, singing songs and chanting "One China, One
World" slogans.

About 30,000 Chinese students study in South Korea.

In other recent Asian legs of the relay, a large number of Chinese
students have attended. In Bangkok, Thailand, students told CNN the
Chinese Embassy there provided their transportation and gave them shirts
to wear.

As in several past stops, demonstrators protesting China's policy toward
Tibet turned out at the rally. VideoWatch footage of the Seoul torch
relay. »

They were joined by other demonstrators critical of how China forcefully
deports North Korean refugees back to their impoverished country when
they escape into China.

Under the North Korean penal code, leaving the country without state
permission can be considered an act of treason, punishable by heavy
penalties including imprisonment and forced labor, said Kay Seok of
Seoul's Human Rights Watch.

"They will be invariably interrogated about what they did in China, why
they went to China and who they met there," she said. "And depending on
the result of the interrogation, they will be sent to labor camps for a
few months or to prison for a few years."

The flame arrived shortly after midnight from another Olympic host city:
Nagano, Japan, site of the 1998 Winter Olympic Games. A few sideliners
waved Tibetan flags, but those were outnumbered by those holding large
Chinese flags. Despite some scuffles, the relay went off uninterrupted.
VideoSee the torch's arrival in South Korea. »

The torch has been shadowed on its journeys by pro-Tibet demonstrators
who troubled the relay in London, England; Paris, France; and San
Francisco, California. Stops in those cities attracted tens of thousands
of demonstrators and prompted dozens of arrests.

Security concerns prompted Pakistani officials to close the relay to the
public and hold it at a stadium in front of invited guests. India
truncated the route and kept protesters at bay by lining the route with
thousands of police officers and paramilitary troopers.

But stops in some countries, such as Argentina, Tanzania and Oman, have
been trouble-free.

 From Seoul, the torch heads to Pyongyang, North Korea. On Wednesday, it
travels to Hong Kong.

Three human rights activists who planned on protesting the torch relay
there said Sunday that they there were barred from entering the
Chinese-ruled territory.

"We (were) finally told that we for 'immigration reasons' could not
enter HK, and should take the next plane back," wrote Danish sculptor
Jens Galschiot on the Web site of his group, Color Orange.

"Although repeatedly asking for the reason of being denied access, they
would/could not explain it in more details than 'we do not live up to
the requirements of immigration.'"

Galschiot sculpted 'The Pillar of Shame,' which depicts 50 torn and
twisted bodies to symbolize those who died in a Chinese crackdown on
Tiananmen Square in 1989.

The torch relay ends its round-the-world jaunt of 21 cities in five
continents in Beijing in August.
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