ATHENS (Reuters) - Greece handed the Olympic flame to China, the hosts of the 2008 Games, on Sunday despite attempts by pro-Tibet protesters to disrupt the ceremony.
A small group of activists tried to stop the flame from reaching the Athens stadium where Beijing officials were waiting, but they were quickly removed by Greek police.
Hundreds of police lined the flame’s route, scores of security vehicles followed the torch bearers and helicopters hovered overhead — the strictest security measures since torch relays were launched at the 1936 Berlin Games.
“In 130 days the 2008 Beijing Olympics begin. We and the other nations of the world look forward to this moment,” said Beijing Games organising chief Liu Qi before accepting the flame. The Games run from Aug. 8 to 24.
Protesters holding Tibet flags and shouting “Free Tibet” and “China out of Tibet” failed to break through the police cordon and get to the final torch-bearer entering the stadium, said a Reuters witness.
Police detained 21 Greeks and foreigners for staging the protests but said they would be released later. Several others were moved away from police cordons.
Rights activists also disrupted Monday’s flame-lighting ceremony in ancient Olympia, televised live around the world, unfolding banners condemning China’s rights record.
“Look at all this police and all this security,” said Yiorgos Konstandopoulos, an office clerk attending the ceremony at the stadium where the first modern Olympics were held in 1896. “It’s the (IOC’s) fault for awarding the Games to China.”
The flame arrives in Beijing on Monday. It returns to Asia in mid-April after a trip across much of the world before starting its journey across China in early May.
Protests also marred the relay within Greece. Demonstrators lay on the ground in front of vehicles accompanying the flame in Olympia and the northern city of Thessaloniki, holding up the runners several times.
Exiled Tibetans and human rights activists targeted the Olympic flame to protest against a crackdown by Chinese forces on protests in Tibet and parts of western China.
China has ruled Tibet since a 1950 invasion and has blamed Tibet’s exiled spiritual leader the Dalai Lama of plotting “terror” ahead of the Aug. 8-24 Olympics.
Greek officials condemned the protests and said the Olympic flame should not be politicised. Greece’s Foreign Press Association and photojournalists’ union said the security measures breached the fundamental right to inform.
Activists in Athens said their target was not the flame but China.
“I was handing out leaflets against China’s systematic organ harvesting when I was removed by police,” said Greek activist Fotini Bakatsia.
“I was not demonstrating against the flame but against Chinese human rights violations.”