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Olympic Torch Starts Journey to Beijing, Despite Disruptions

Human rights activists interrupted the tightly guarded Olympic torch lighting ceremony in Greece and tried to prevent the torch from beginning its global journey on Monday, March 24.

Policemen detain a protester at the beginning of the flame-lighting ceremony

Police detained the protesters

Three men ran on to a field where Lieu Qi, president of the organizing committee of the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games, was giving a speech. One tried to unfurl a flag that showed five interlocked handcuffs in the pattern of the Olympics rings. The men, said to be members of press freedom organization Reporters Without Borders, were detained by police.

"If the Olympic flame is sacred, human rights are even more so," the Paris-based group said in a statement. "We cannot let the Chinese government seize the Olympic flame, a symbol of peace, without denouncing the dramatic situation of human rights in the country."

At the ceremony in southern Greece, on the site of ancient Olympia, an actress dressed as a high priestess lit the flame from the sun's rays using a convex mirror. The ceremony launched the Olympic torch relay, which marks the countdown for each Games.

The Beijing Olympics relay is the longest and most ambitious ever planned and is set to last 130 days and cover 137,000 kilometers (85,000 miles) worldwide. The flame will be divided in two during a ceremony in Beijing on March 31, and one of the torches will be carried through Tibet and up Mount Everest in May.

Around 10 Tibetan activists attempted to block the relay by lying in front of cars in the procession at the start of the torch's week-long journey through Greece.


"No momentum for a boycott"

Jacques Rogge, president of the International Olympic Committee, said on Monday he saw no sign of international support for a boycott of the Beijing Games over the Chinese crackdown in Tibet and nearby provinces, following riots that may have killed dozens of people.

The first bearer, Alexandros Nikolaidis, Olympic winner of Teakwondo, and actress Maria Nafpliotou in the role of the high priestess raise the torch with the Olympic flame during the rehearsal for the lightning ceremony

The torch was successfully lit

"The major political leaders don't want a boycott," said Rogge, ahead of Monday's ceremony at the site of the ancient games. "There is no momentum for a boycott."

"Bush doesn't want a boycott, Sarkozy doesn't want a boycott, Brown doesn't want a boycott," Rogge said, referring to US President George W. Bush, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

"I would hope that potential protesters will understand that public opinion would not want the torch relay painted by political protests. It would be counterproductive," Rogge added.

Relay protest

Over the weekend, Thai environmental activist Narisa Chakrabongse, who had been chosen to carry the torch in her country, released a statement saying she would not take part in the relay.

"I want to send a strong message to China that its actions are not accepted by the world community and China should urgently review its policy toward Tibet," Narisa said.

Also on Monday, the German Olympic Sports Union (DOSB), the highest Olympic body in the country, said in a statement that Germany would not boycott the Beijing Games. The organization said it was following the events in Tibet with "great attention and concern" and added that it was aware that the human rights situation in China was still "unsatisfactory" despite improvements in the last few years.
The Beijing Olympics will take place August 8-24.



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