Govt defends Olympic torch role

A senior government minister has said yesterday’s anti-China protests were “a good thing” as China condemned the pro-Tibetan protests in London yesterday as “vile”.

Thirty-seven people were arrested yesterday during the torch’s 31-mile route through the UK capital on its way to Paris.

Activists demonstrating against China’s rule in Tibet tried to put out the Olympic flame with a fire extinguisher and a man attempted to grab the torch from former Blue Peter presenter Konnie Huq as she carried it through west London.

The torch arrived in the French capital last night, but authorities have vowed to protect the flame like “a head of state”.

Olympics minister Tessa Jowell defended Britain’s decision to take part in the controversial relay, but said the protests had been a “good thing”.

Free expression and demonstration are part of the workings of a democracy, she said.

Gordon Brown was criticised by opposition politicians for receiving the flame at Downing Street, although the prime minister pointedly refused to touch it as it was passed between runners.

But Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg said it had been “wholly inappropriate” for Mr Brown to take part in the ceremony.

Speaking to the BBC, he said the government needed to be stronger on China’s need to “play by the rules”.

“The cornerstone of those international rules is that we all respect those fundamental human rights to which we, the British, have always attached a great deal of significance,” he said.

“And that’s why it’s wholly inappropriate that Gordon Brown is participating in this torch bearing ceremony today.”

Conservative leader David Cameron said it was “absolutely right” people in Britain should have the right to protest but told Sky News they should not break the law.

Reacting to yesterday’s protests, state media in Beijing blamed a “few Tibetan separatists”.

But pressure on China has been stepped up by the head of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), Jacques Rogge, who called on Beijing to reach a “rapid, peaceful resolution of Tibet”.

“I’m very concerned with the international situation and what’s happening in Tibet,” the IOC president said from the Chinese capital.

But Mr Rogge added that the London protestors’ actions were “not compatible with the values of the torch relay or the Olympic Games”.

Despite an increased security presence in Paris, which Reporters Without Borders says has transformed the city into “Tiananmen Square”, further demonstrations are expected today.

The torch was lit in Olympia, Greece, last week and came to London via St Petersburg. It will pass through 20 countries before ending its journey in Beijing for the opening ceremony of the games, on August 8th.

Demonstrators have been reacting to China’s suppression of pro-Tibetan protests in the Himalayan region last month.

According to the Tibetan government in exile, led by the Dalai Lama, China used lethal force in its crackdown upon protestors, while Beijing says 19 rioters died.