France debates Beijing boycott as Olympic torch reaches London

But Gordon Brown confirms he will attend opening ceremony, despite ongoing Tibet crackdown
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The prospect of one of the world's leading political figures boycotting the Beijing Olympic Games over Chinese actions in Tibet was raised and then seriously qualified yesterday in a sign that the invitation to China in August is causing severe differences within Western governments.

The French minister for human rights, Rama Yade, was quoted in Le Monde newspaper as saying that President Nicolas Sarkozy will boycott the opening of the games unless China agreed to two conditions: releasing political prisoners and holding talks with the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibet. But last night, the minister said the paper had misquoted her. "The word 'condition' was never used," she said.

In the past, the President has said he cannot rule out the possibility that he might boycott the opening ceremony if China continues its crackdown in Tibet.

The comments came as Gordon Brown prepared to welcome the Olympic torch to London today on its journey to Beijing and ruled out any boycott of the games, arguing that the Dalai Lama opposed such action.

Today, 80 athletes, celebrities and dignitaries are due to carry the Olympic torch in relay through London, despite calls by campaigners for a boycott. At least five people have refused to carry the torch, including the comedian Francesca Martinez, pictured left. The relay route through central London is expected to be met by around 500 demonstrators from organisations including the Free Tibet movement and the Falun Gong spiritual movement which is banned in China. The Metropolitan Police is expected to deploy 2,000 police along the route.

"Any violence in China is to be condemned and I do urge restraint all round," Mr Brown said. "It is important that we recognise that the tensions between those in Tibet and the Chinese authorities can only in the end be solved by dialogue. The Dalai Lama himself says he does not want to see a boycott of the Olympics and that is why I have said that as the host country for the 2012 Olympics I will attend the [Beijing] Olympics as I know many others will do."

But the Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg said it was "wholly inappropriate" for Mr Brown to welcome the torch to No 10. The Free Tibet spokesman Matt Whitticase added: "He should be saying, 'Sort out your problems in Tibet and improve your human rights record there', instead of receiving this torch, which is undoubtedly tainted by China's actions inside Tibet."

Ms Yade is close to the French President, but has a history of straying diplomatically off-side. In Le Monde, she said that France did not want to "give lessons" to Beijing, but proceeded to lay down a specific agenda for talks between China and the Dalai Lama.

"Such talks must cover a recognition of Tibetan autonomy and the spiritual, religious and cultural identity of Tibetans," she said. She also accused China of "assimilation and colonisation" in Tibet and of "marginalising" the population.

Her interview went to press as several overseas groups representing Tibet activists said police fired on hundreds of protesters in a Tibetan area of China, killing eight people. The reports indicate that the unrest is continuing in China's Tibetan areas despite a massive security presence since violent anti-government demonstrations broke out in mid-March in Tibet's capital Lhasa, and nearby provinces.

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