As the torch is lit, protesters send message of intent to China

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The Independent Online

China got a taste yesterday of the protests that could dog the Olympic flame as it makes its way around the world to Beijing.

Moments before the torch was lit at the birthplace of the ancient Olympics, human rights activists broke through the Greek security cordon and unfurled a banner showing the Olympic rings as interlocking handcuffs just as the head of the Beijing Games was talking about the "light and happiness" he hoped the sporting extravaganza would bring.

Later, as the flame began its 85,000-mile odyssey that will end on 8 August in the Olympic stadium in Beijing, a Tibetan woman covered in fake blood lay down in the path of the first torchbearer, forcing him to jog on the spot until plain-clothes police cleared her off the route.

The Beijing leadership has been facing a public relations disaster since demonstrations in Tibet against China's rule turned violent, giving new momentum to human rights activists, some of whom are demanding a global boycott of the 2008 Games.

However, Chinese viewers tuning in to watch the lighting of the torch, the start of the official countdown to the Beijing Olympics, would have seen nothing of yesterday's protests. State television cut away to pre-recorded scenes, and a report on the state news agency Xinhua described the ceremony as "flawless". The three demonstrators who interrupted the opening speeches were from Reporters Without Borders, the Paris-based press freedom group. "If the Olympic flame is sacred, human rights are even more so," the 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."

One of the protesters unfurled a flag declaring "Boycott the country that tramples on human rights" and another tried to grab the microphone, shouting "Freedom, Freedom" before they were bundled away by Greek police.

Liu Qi, the president of the Beijing organising committee, refused to be distracted by the commotion and continued his speech unruffled. "The Olympic flame will radiate light and happiness, peace and friendship, and hope and dreams to the people of China and the whole world," he told the crowd assembled around the ruins of the Temple of Hera in ancient Olympia.

The actual lighting of the torch, where actresses dressed as high priestesses use a parabolic mirror to channel the sun's rays, is usually the most stressful part of the ceremony as officials fret about whether clouds will appear at the wrong moment. Yesterday that passed off smoothly. But once the torch was outside the confines of the ruins, it ran into more trouble. The woman covered in simulated blood jumped out of the crowd and threw herself across the path of the torchbearer. She was quickly joined by others, some with Tibetan flags, others singing the Tibetan anthem.

One protester, Pablo Lopsang, said the protest was about "fair play in Tibet". "We are sorry if we disturbed people here. But we are left with no choice. Blood is coming out of Tibet. We are not against the Chinese people, only their government," he said.

Greek police said they had detained nine people and that the three demonstrators from the ancient temple would be charged.

Jacques Rogge, president of the International Olympic Committee, said: "I think it's always sad when there are protests, but they were not violent and that's the most important thing."

Human Rights Watch said the torch should not go through Tibet unless the Chinese government agrees to an independent investigation into the recent unrest.

More protests are expected as the torch continues across five continents and through 20 countries to Beijing, with the most controversial section of the route expected to be up Mount Everest on the Tibet border.