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Olympic flame arrives in Moscow ahead of Sochi

The Olympic flame that will burn at next year's Winter Games in Sochi has arrived in Moscow. The torch has a long journey ahead of it before it reaches the opening ceremony in February.

The flame was flown into Moscow on Sunday from Greece, where it was lit a week ago at the birthplace of the ancient Olympics in Olympia and officially handed over to a Russian delegation in Athens on Saturday.

After arriving at Moscow's Vnukovo-3 airport, which is reserved for VIPs and officials, the torch was taken to Red Square for a cauldron-lighting ceremony overseen by Russian President Vladimir Putin. Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Kozak (pictured) carried the flame during the reception ceremony..

On Monday, it will set off on a 123-day, more than 65,000-km relay through all of Russia's 83 regions.

Among other things, the torch will go to the North Pole, to the top of Europe's highest peak, Mt. Elbrus, to the depths of Lake Baikal in Siberia, and - unlit - to the International Space Station. At the ISS, it will even be taken out for a space walk on November 9 by cosmonauts Oleg Kotov and Sergei Ryazanzky.

The relay is intended to ensure that more than 90 per cent of Russia's 142 million people will be within one hour of the flame, which Sochi Games chief Dmitry Chernyshenko believes will help "all resident of Russia [to] feel involved in the Olympic celebrations."

The Sochi 2014 Winter Games are to begin on February 7.

Human rights concerns

The choice of venue has come under considerable criticism since it was decided in 2007, with environmentalists alleging that the site was selected with a disregard for local flora and fauna in the Black Sea summer resort.

Activists have also charged that low-cost migrant labor has been used to prepare the Games.

But even heavier criticism has been leveled by human rights groups and governments who have voiced concern at a perceived lack of freedom in Russia, and more specifically at legislation introduced under Putin punishing the dissemination of information about homosexuality to minors.

Activists say the law could be used to justify a crackdown on gays.

International Olympics Committee president Thomas Bach has however said last Sunday he had received "assurances" from Russian officials that the law would not affect athletes at the Games.

tj/rc (AFP, Reuters)