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Protests disrupt Olympic torch ceremony

  • Story Highlights
  • Protesters disrupt Olympic torch lighting ceremony at Olympia, Greece
  • French based group Reporters Without Borders claims responsibility
  • International route takes in 23 cities on five continents over 34 days
  • Torch relay through China will take the Olympic flame up Mount Everest
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OLYMPIA, Greece (CNN) -- Activists protesting China's crackdown in Tibet briefly disrupted the Olympic flame-lighting ceremony in Greece on Monday, calling for a boycott of the Summer Games in Beijing later this year.

Despite the brief disruption by protesters, the Olympic flame began a 130-day, 85,000-mile journey Monday slated to take it from ancient Olympia in Greece to Beijing, China, where the 2008 games are to begin in August.

Charging onto the field of an ancient Greek stadium in Olympia, three protesters unfurled a banner calling for the boycott.

The disruption unnerved thousands of spectators, dignitaries and Olympic officials who had packed into the sprawling ancient stadium to watch actresses posing as priestesses light the Olympic flame from the sun's rays.

Police said they detained the three French protesters -- members of the Paris-based media rights group Reporters Without Borders, who had evaded security to unfurl the black banner, which depicted the Olympic rings as handcuffs.

"If the flame is sacred then so are humans," the French group said in a written statement. "We cannot let the Chinese seize the Olympic flame, a symbol of piece, without denouncing the dramatic situation of human rights in the country." Video Watch the protests in Greece »

One of the arrested men Jean-Francois Juliard told CNN they used their press cards to get access to the ceremony and unfurl a black banner depicting the Games' trademark Olympic rings as handcuffs.

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"We were surprised to have the access. It will get more and more difficult for us to do this kind of thing (again)," he said.

Olympic officials said it was the first time the movement's flame-lighting ritual had been interrupted by protests at the birthplace of the games. Video Watch footage of the torch ceremony security breach »

Broadcast live, the stunt left Greek commentators speechless. But Chinese state-run television cut away to a pre-recorded scene and made no mention of the event.

More protests followed, after the torch began its long trek. A Tibetan woman covered herself with red paint and lay on the ground, forcing the torchbearer to weave around her as other protesters shouted "Flame of shame."

Other protesters were detained by police for trying to stage a peaceful protest along the torch-relay route.

A pro-Tibet group said in a written statement that two of its members were "violently detained after unfurling banners and Tibetan flags on the road as the torch made its way through Olympia."

No injuries or scuffles with police were reported.

IOC chief engaged in 'quiet diplomacy'

China's communist leadership has faced a public relations fiasco since a spate of demonstrations turned violent in the Tibetan capital, Lhasa, on March 10, the 49th anniversary of a failed uprising against communist rule.

Beijing says 22 people died in the clashes but the toll has been impossible to confirm because of a news blackout imposed by China on the country's interior.

Earlier Monday, Jacques Rogge, president of the International Olympic Committee, said he was engaged in "what I call a silent diplomacy with Chinese authorities since day one" on Tibet, but ruled out a boycott of the games.

Greek authorities denounced the incidents.

"The government condemns every attempt to interfere with the ceremony for the lighting of the Olympic flame through actions that have no relation at all with the Olympic Spirit," said Evangelos Antonaros, Greece's junior government spokesman.

Monday's ceremony marked the countdown to the Beijing Games, setting the Olympic flame on an unprecedented global odyssey.

From Olympia, the flame is to be carried through Greece for a week before taking off on a 137,000-kilometer, 130-day relay before arriving at the National Stadium in Beijing for the August 8 opening ceremony. View a map of all countries the torch will visit »

While much of the torch's trip will be aboard a chartered jet, tens of thousands of torchbearers -- 19,400 in China alone -- will carry the flame on foot through 23 cities on five continents and then throughout China.

A concave steel mirror located at the ruins of the Temple of Hera in Olympia focused the sun's rays so they ignited the flame.

Greek actress Maria Nafpliotou, portraying the High Priestess, carried the flame in an ancient Greek pot and used it to light the first torch. Alexandros Nikolaidis, a Greek athlete who won a silver medal in taekwondo at the 2004 Olympics, then carried the flame for the first mile.

China's Olympic swimming gold medalist, Luo Xuejuan, took the torch from Nikolaidis. Another 603 bearers will run it through Greece, culminating in Athens on March 30, where the torch will be handed over to China for a flight to Beijing.

After arriving in Beijing, the flame will move around the world through April. In May, it begins a three-month trek through at least 111 Chinese cities in more than 30 provinces and regions.

A second flame will attempt a side trip in May -- depending on weather -- to the summit of Mount Everest, the world's highest peak, along the Tibet-Nepal border.

The most controversial leg of the relay is planned for June, when the torch is scheduled to be carried through Tibet and three neighboring provinces, where violence broke out this month.

In a written statement, the non-governmental organization Human Rights Watch urged the games' organizers not to allow the flame to pass through Tibet "unless the Chinese government agrees to an independent investigation into the recent unrest in Tibetan areas."

"Either Tibet is open or it's not. If it is, let independent monitors and the media go there. If it's not, the torch shouldn't go there either," said Sophie Richardson, Asia advocacy director for Human Rights Watch. "The Olympic torch should not be turned into a smokescreen to cover up human rights abuses."

Olympic officials insisted last week that the relay in these areas will proceed as planned.

"All the preparations for the torch relay in Tibet, Xinjiang, Qinghai and Gansu are proceeding very well," Beijing Olympics organizer Jiang Xiaoyu said.

The flame is set to arrive in Beijing on August 6, where it will be paraded around the city until entering the stadium for the games' opening ceremony on August 8.

In addition to visiting cities in Greece and China, runners plan to carry the torch to the following cities, listed in the order in which the torch is scheduled to visit:

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Almaty, Kazakhstan; Istanbul, Turkey; St. Petersburg, Russia; London, England; Paris, France; San Francisco, California, USA; Buenos Aires, Argentina; Dar es Salaam, Tanzania; Muscat, Oman; Islamabad, Pakistan; New Delhi, India; Bangkok, Thailand; Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia; Jakarta, Indonesia; Canberra, Australia; Nagano, Japan; Seoul, South Korea; Pyongyang, North Korea; and Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

Just before the mainland China stretch, the flame will also pass through China's two special administrative regions, Hong Kong and Macao. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

CNN's Anthee Carassava contributed to this report.

Copyright 2008 CNN. All rights reserved.This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Associated Press contributed to this report.

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