Runners Carry Olympic Flame In New Delhi Amid Heavy Security

By: AP
By: AP

NEW DELHI - Runners carried the Olympic flame Thursday along a heavily guarded route through central New Delhi, protected by about 15,000 police who kept Tibetan exiles and other anti-China protesters from disrupting the ceremony.

Much of New Delhi's leafy British colonial-era center — where the presidential palace, Parliament and government ministries are located — was sealed off to traffic and pedestrians in some of the tightest security ever seen in the capital.

India is home to the world's largest Tibetan exile community, and thousands held a peaceful mock torch relay earlier Thursday elsewhere in New Delhi to draw attention to the Chinese crackdown in Tibet. Protests were also held in other Indian cities, including Mumbai, where 25 people who tried to storm the Chinese consulate were detained.

To avoid the chaos that has marked the torch runs in London, Paris and San Francisco, Indian authorities cut the relay route to less than two miles. That meant each of the 70 runners in the relay could jog with the flame for only a few seconds before handing it to the next person.

The torchbearers were surrounded by rings of jogging security forces — first Chinese forces in blue tracksuits and then Indians in red ones — as they ran from the presidential palace to the historic India Gate monument, where an Olympic cauldron was lit. Several buses of police followed the runners, who included tennis star Leander Paes.

The public was allowed nowhere near the relay, and crowds amounted to just several hundred young people sitting on bleachers wearing T-shirts of an Olympic sponsor, Coca-Cola, and several hundred members of India's Chinese community.

Shortly after the Olympic flame was flown to New Delhi early Thursday from its last stop in Pakistan, some two dozen Tibetan exiles chanted anti-China slogans and protested along a busy highway to the airport. Several of the protesters were detained by police.

Thousands of Tibetans took part in their own torch run to highlight the Tibetan struggle. That run began with a Buddhist, Hindu and Sikh prayer session at the site where Indian pacifist icon Mohandas Gandhi was cremated. The torch was then lighted and Tibetans put on a show of traditional dancing.

Several dozen prominent Indians, including former Defense Minster George Fernandez, joined the Tibetans, marched without incident.

Public sympathy in India lies with the Tibetans, who have sought refuge in the country since the Dalai Lama, their spiritual leader, fled Tibet after a failed uprising against Beijing in 1959, setting up his government-in-exile in the northern town of Dharmsala.

On Wednesday, about 100 protesters tried to breach the security cordon around the Chinese Embassy. Police dragged away about 50 of them, loading them into police vans — but not before they managed to spray paint "No Olympics in China" on a street near the embassy.

Because of repeated protests at the embassy in recent weeks, it is now surrounded by barricades and barbed wire. Exiles also have gone on hunger strikes and shaved their heads to protest China's crackdown on protests in Tibet.

In Mumbai, India's financial capital, police detained some 25 Tibetans who tried to breach the barricades surrounding the Chinese consulate there. Protesters shouted "Free Tibet" as they were dragged into police vehicles.

The protests reached the isolated Indian Himalayan region of Ladakh, which borders Tibet, where at least 5,000 Tibetan exiles and local Buddhists marched amid a strike call that shut down all businesses and schools, said M.K. Bhandari, a senior local official.

Chanting "Free Tibet!" and "Down with China!" the protesters carried Tibetan flags as they marched through Leh, the region's main town. Ladakh is home to about 7,000 Tibetan exiles.

Tibetan exiles, who number more than 100,000 in India, have staged near-daily protests in New Delhi since demonstrations first broke out in Tibet in March and were put down by Chinese authorities.

The exiles said the torch run was a perfect opportunity to make their point, despite the fact that the Dalai Lama says he supports China's hosting of the Olympics.

"By speaking out when the Chinese government brings the Olympic torch to India, you will send a strong message to Tibetans, to the Chinese government, and to the world, that Indians support the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan people's nonviolent struggle for freedom and justice," according to Students for a Free Tibet, an exile group.

After decades of frosty relations, New Delhi is trying to forge closer ties with China. In Beijing, the Chinese government said it was pleased with India's security preparations.

"I think the Indian government will take effective measures to ensure the smooth and safe relay in New Delhi this evening," said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu.

The Olympic flame, which began its worldwide six-continent trek from ancient Olympia in Greece on March 24, has been the focus of protests over China's human rights record.

The turmoil over the torch relay and the growing international criticism of China's policies on Tibet and Darfur have turned the Olympics — which begin Aug. 8 — into one of the most contentious in recent history.

The flame heads next to Bangkok, Thailand, where authorities say they may similarly shorten Saturday's relay route to about six miles through the capital because of security concerns.


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