Security tight as China launches Olympic torch relay


China's president and the country's top athlete launched the Beijing Olympics torch relay on Monday amid cheering, dancing and tight security, marking the symbolic start to a Games overshadowed by activism and unrest in Tibet.

Chinese President Hu Jintao lit a cauldron on a red-carpeted rostrum on Tiananmen Square before handing the torch to World and Olympic champion hurdler Liu Xiang, who officially opened the relay before the flag-waving crowd.

"The century-old dream of the Chinese people to host the Olympic Games has been turned into a reality," said Xi Jinping, Hu's heir-apparent who is overseeing Olympic preparations.

"The torch relay will pull together the strength of the whole nation in making every effort to stage a unique and well-run Olympic Games and promote national development, social progress and people's well-being," Xi told the ceremony.

But what was envisioned as a torch relay around the world that would illustrate unity ahead of the August 8 opening of the Games has instead become a lightning rod for protests.

Activists unfurled banners condemning China's rights record at
last week's flame-lighting ceremony in Greece and on Sunday a small group of protesters tried to block the flame's handover to Beijing officials.

The flame, encased in a lantern, was escorted on Monday off a plane emblazoned with "Journey of Harmony" and brought to Tiananmen Square, the focus of democracy protests that were crushed in 1989.

Police and plainclothes security lined streets cordoned off with yellow tape and the ceremony passed without disruption in the square, overlooked by a giant portrait of Mao Zedong.

"This is something the Chinese people should be happy about. The protests overseas are inappropriate because people abroad should also be happy for China's achievements," said 22-year-old onlooker Song Haifeng.

A second flame was lit to be taken to Tibet, where an attempt will be made to take it to the top of Mount Everest in early May.

The square was decked out in a red carpet, with rows of ethnic dancers, including Tibetans, and brightly dressed students, workers and other supporters waving pompoms and flags.

"I am certain that the Games themselves will not only be a moment of sporting excellence, but also an opportunity for the people of China and the world to learn, discover and respect each other," chief Olympic inspector Hein Verbruggen said.

The scenes mark a contrast from the mood overseas, where exiled Tibetans and human rights activists have targeted the Olympics since China poured security forces into Tibet and parts of western China to suppress anti-government protests.

In Athens, protesters holding Tibet flags and shouting "Free Tibet" and "China out of Tibet" failed to break through a police cordon to block the flame's passage.

China blames the Dalai Lama for days of protest in Lhasa, that burst into a citywide riot on March 14, and other unrest throughout its ethnic Tibetan regions.

It says he is seeking independence for the region Communist troops entered in 1950 and wants to disrupt the Beijing Olympics, a charge the Dalai Lama, who has lived in exile in India since a failed 1959 uprising against Chinese rule, denies.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang on Thursday made clear China's opposition to any protests surrounding the torch relay.

"We condemn these shameful acts which violate the spirit of the Olympics and the common aspirations of people worldwide," he told a news conference.

In Tibet, officials visited border passes last week and asked local leaders to enhance vigilance and ensure stability for the Everest part of the relay, the Tibet Daily reported.

The international leg of the 130-day relay starts when the flame heads for Kazakhstan on Tuesday. It returns to Beijing on August 6 after travelling throughout China, two days before it is used to light the cauldron at the Olympic opening ceremony. (Reuters)