Mixed crowds greet Olympic torch in Seoul

Thousands of Chinese supporters and pro-Tibet protesters gathered in Seoul's Olympic park as the Olympic torch made its way through the South Korean capital guarded by 8,300 police and anti-riot officers.(Report: O.Salazar-Winspear)


The South Korean leg of the Beijing Olympic torch relay saw thousands of cheering flag-waving Chinese demonstrators vastly outnumber rival protesters on Sunday, amid isolated scuffles between them.

A roar of approval rang out as the torch began its 24-kilometre (15-mile) journey at Olympic Park in southeastern Seoul, accompanied by 60 track-suited police runners.

Activists angry at China's actions in Tibet, and especially at its forced repatriation of North Korean refugees, had vowed to disrupt the relay.

Police mounted a massive security operation involving 8,300 regular and anti-riot officers backed up by two helicopters.

Officers also guarded local subway stations and the route of the relay, including Han river bridges which demonstrators had vowed to block.

But more than 6,000 pro-China demonstrators vastly outnumbered some 300 protesters at the park, according to police estimates.

A brief clash between the two groups ended when riot police carrying shields separated them. Some Chinese threw water bottles, stones, chunks of wood, dairy products and drink cans at their adversaries.

Near the park, witnesses said Chinese students surrounded and beat a small group of protesters. They said a local newspaper photographer suffered a head injury from a stone thrown by the students.

A middle-aged man claiming to have fled North Korea tried to set himself on fire in protest at the event, according to a witness quoted by Yonhap news agency.

The man poured what appeared to be flammable liquid over himself near the torch bearer but was immediately stopped by police, it said.

"China, stop killing North Korean refugees," read one banner displayed by protesters. Some activists in a skit depicted the repatriation of a hooded and bound North Korean.

China sends back all those North Koreans it catches as economic migrants, a policy strongly criticised by rights groups. Refugees face severe punishment, or even reportedly a death sentence in some cases, on their return.

Activists say China has been stepping up repatriations before the Olympics and has increased the rewards it gives for tip-offs.

US-based Human Rights Watch has said Seoul should use the occasion to urge Beijing to change its policy on North Korean refugees.

Reverend Soh Kyung-Suk, co-chairman of Christians for Social Responsibility, criticised the response of the Chinese students to the protests as "not democratic." He said some 300 anti-China demonstrators turned up at the park.

"China, which does not respect human rights, is not entitled to host the Olympics," he told AFP. "It is a shame for South Korea to tolerate the Olympic torch relay for such a country."

But the students, chanting "Go, Go China!" were not inclined to let anyone spoil modern China's coming-out party this August.

"The Olympics should be successful and will be successful," said a 26-year-old e-commerce student who identified himself only as Wang.

He carried a huge Chinese flag and another was painted on his face.

"One China and One Nation. The pro-Tibetan demonstrators are liars," Wang said.

"Tibet was, is, will always be a part of China," read one banner.

The torch landed from Japan where protesters hurled rubbish and flares during its run on Saturday and brawled with Chinese supporters. At least four people were injured in the scuffles in the mountain resort of Nagano.

Earlier legs were also hit by demonstrations, particularly in London and Paris.

The relay was due to finish at 7:00 pm (1000 GMT) at City Hall in central Seoul, where thousands of Chinese students had already gathered to welcome the torch.

It was to be flown late Sunday to communist North Korea, a strong ally of Beijing, which has arranged a major protest-free welcome.

Daily newsletterReceive essential international news every morning