SEOUL (Reuters) - Protests and scuffles greeted the Olympic flame as it began a two-day journey on the divided Korean peninsula on Sunday along a route guarded by thousands of riot policeman wielding shields and truncheons.
Thousands of Chinese wrapped in their country’s flag shouted, “Come on China”, “No politics, only Olympics” at the start of the torch relay in Seoul where they greatly outnumbered South Koreans protesting Beijing’s human rights record.
At one point, the two groups clashed with Chinese students kicking an elderly South Korean protester and hurling rocks at a group that raised banners chastising Beijing.
The torch relay in South Korea began at a park used for the 1988 Seoul Olympics and followed a 22-km (14-mile) route kept secret until the last minute.
The global torch relay ahead of the Beijing Games in August has prompted protests against China’s human rights record in Tibet as well as patriotic rallies by Chinese who criticise the West for vilifying Beijing.
“The torch relay is being used for anti-Chinese protests. This has provoked a lot of anger inside China and caused people like myself to come out here to defend our country,” said Chinese student Yang Hui.
Protests have disrupted the global torch relay and by far the biggest issue has been criticism of China’s recent crackdown in Tibet after deadly riots there and in surrounding areas.
China has blamed the Dalai Lama for stirring up the unrest and accused him and his government in exile in India of trying to spoil the Games in August, charges the Tibetan spiritual leader denies.
Several Western countries, including the United States, have urged China to resume talks with aides of the Dalai Lama and on Friday Beijing abruptly announced that it intended to meet his aides in the next few days.
But the government has kept up its attacks on the Dalai.
China on Sunday poured scorn on the Tibetan leader and hailed protesters against Tibetan self-rule as patriotic heroes, suggesting the government will not give ground in talks.
“The Dalai clique has always been masters at games with words and the ideas that they have tossed about truly make the head spin,” the People’s Daily, the top paper of the ruling Communist Party, said in a commentary.
“Questions of sovereignty are beyond debate and splitting China is sure to fail.”
The flame is meant to transmit a message of peace and friendship but in Seoul protesters used it as an opportunity to urge Beijing to better protect what rights groups estimate are the hundreds of thousands of North Koreans who have fled to China, escaping poverty at home.
China says the North Koreans are economic refugees. It has been criticised by human rights groups for repatriating them, where they face prison terms under life-threatening conditions in brutal camps.
South Korea police said they arrested two Chinese on suspicion of throwing rocks at anti-China protesters, one North Korean defector who tried to disrupt the relay and two other defectors who poured paint thinner on themselves in an apparent attempt to set themselves on fire.
There are several thousand Chinese students in South Korea and they were bussed in from all parts of the country, supplied with Chinese flags, T-shirts, banners and stickers.
The pro-Beijing rallies in the South Korean capital left many Seoul residents angered.
“It’s OK to cheer for their Olympic torch, but this is too much,” said Min Chae-woo.
Protests, though, will not be on the carefully planned agenda at the flame’s next stop, the North Korean capital Pyongyang.
Human rights groups say North Korea’s authoritarian leaders crush any attempt at dissent. A protest of any sort is certain to lead to at least a long sentence in a political prison, or even execution.
The torch is expected to arrive with its attendants by airplane in Pyongyang at around midnight (1500 GMT). It then goes to Vietnam and Hong Kong.
Vietnamese security forces alone will guard the torch in Ho Chi Minh City, officials said on Sunday, as political activists called for demonstrations over an island dispute with China.
In Hong Kong, three human rights activists who planned to protest against rights violations in China during the torch relay in the city were refused entry to the city, a newspaper reported on Sunday.
The isolated North, which rarely holds international events, has promised China it will stage an “amazing” relay on Monday.
When North Korea hosts an honoured state visitor, it sends hundreds of thousands of its citizens into the streets of Pyongyang. Dressed in their finest clothes, they wave bouquets of pink and purple plastic flowers and cheer on cue when the guest passes by.
In freewheeling Seoul, security was elaborately planned, involving about 8,000 police officers, but some South Koreans were unimpressed.
“This is too noisy,” said an elderly South Korean woman named Park who walked past the start of the relay.
“I wish that the torch never came here and all of this would go away.”
(Additional reporting by Cheon Jong-woo in Seoul, Chris Buckley in Beijing, Grant McCool in Ho Chi Minh City and Anne Marie Roantree in Hong Kong; Editing by David Fogarty)
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