India braces for protests during torch relay

4/16/2008 NEW DELHI

About 100 Tibetan exiles tried to breach the security cordon Wednesday around the Chinese Embassy, and police dragged away about 50 of them, loading them into police vans -- but not before they manage to spray paint "No Olympics in China" on a street near the embassy.

After decades of frosty relations, New Delhi is trying to forge closer ties with China, and Indian officials are desperate to avoid the chaos during torch runs in London, Paris and San Francisco.

Many in India's 100,000-member Tibetan exile community, the world's largest, have threatened more of the protests that they've staged nearly every day here since demonstrations first broke out in Tibet in March and were put down by Chinese officials.

In recent weeks, Tibetan exiles here have stormed the Chinese Embassy, which is now surrounded by barricades and barbed wire, gone on hunger strikes, and shaved their heads to protest China's crackdown on protests in Tibet.

The exiles say the torch run through the city is a perfect opportunity to make their point, despite the fact that the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan Buddhist spiritual leader, says he supports China hosting of the Olympics.

Protests are expected to begin early Thursday, hours before the run scheduled for the 4 p.m. (6:30 a.m. EDT) start of the relay.

Thousands of Tibetans reportedly were heading to New Delhi to protest and will take part in their own torch run to highlight the Tibetan struggle against China. Exiles also have urged Indian athletes to boycott the torch relay and asked residents to wear "Free Tibet" T-shirts and fly Tibetan flags.

"By speaking out when the Chinese government brings the Olympic torch to India, you will send a strong message to Tibetans, to the Chinese government, and to the world, that Indians support the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan people's nonviolent struggle for freedom and justice," according to Students for a Free Tibet, a strident exile group.

Some exiles have said they plan to make a more dramatic statement, possibly trying to douse or steal the Olympic flame, although activists were sketchy about their plans.

Tenzin Tsundue, a Tibetan activist with a reputation for publicity stunts, said he didn't want to talk about specific plans in a telephone interview Wednesday because he fears his phone is tapped -- a not uncommon practice in this part of the world.

"But be at India Gate tomorrow," he said, referring to a monument in New Delhi that the torch will pass.

Activists disrupted torch relays in Paris, London and San Francisco. However, stops in Kazakhstan, Russia, Argentina, Tanzania, Oman and Pakistan have been trouble-free.

In Pakistan, runners carried the Olympic flame around the outside of the Jinnah Stadium in the capital of Islamabad on Wednesday -- an invitation-only event in front of a sparse crowd with heavy security.

The public could watch live TV accounts of the relay, which looked almost like a practice run because of the lack of people and the location.

President Pervez Musharraf handed the torch to the first runner and later said the Pakistani people stood with China "in this glorious event you host for the entire world."

The Pakistan Olympic Association urged broadcasters using state TV coverage of the torch to avoid "negative comments" and to make "no mention" of the Tibet disturbances.

For India, a Paris-style disruption, where officials were forced to douse the flame amid protests, would be a political disaster.

India and China are forging their closest ties since they fought a 1962 border war. Last year, two-way trade reached $37 billion.

Both countries, with their billion-plus populations, are seeking a greater role on the world stage, spurred by rapidly growing economies. However, India is still wary of China, whose economic, diplomatic and military clout in has grown in recent years.

But public sympathy in India lies with the Tibetans, who have sought refuge in the country since the Dalai Lama fled Tibet after a failed uprising against Beijing in 1959, setting up his government-in-exile in the northern town of Dharmsala.

While India needs to bow to popular sentiment and allow some Tibetan protests, it must ensure it does not jeopardize its important relations with China, analysts say.

"This is a fine balance that is being maintained," said New Delhi-based analyst C. Uday Bhaskar. "It is about seeing the big picture. Indo-Sino relations have a depth and implications for both countries, policy review cannot be done on an emotive issue."

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