India Braces for Protests as Olympic Torch Relay Begins

Indian authorities sealed off the center of this country's normally frenetic capital Thursday to welcome the Olympic torch — and to try to keep Tibetan protesters away from the flame.

Security was among the tightest ever seen in central New Delhi, with rings of jogging security forces — first Chinese forces in blue tracksuits and then Indians in red ones — surrounding the flame-carriers as they ran from the presidential palace to the historic India Gate monument. Several buses full of police followed the runners.

Much of New Delhi's leafy British colonial-era center — the administrative heart of India, home Parliament and myriad government ministries — was closed to traffic and pedestrians by about 15,000 police. Streets were sealed for blocks around the three-kilometer (two-mile) route, which had been sharply cut back by worried organizers and officials — leaving the 70 runners able to jog for just a few seconds before handing the flame to the next person.

The public was allowed nowhere near the relay, and crowds amounted to just several hundred young people sitting on bleachers wearing T-shirts of an Olympic sponsor, Coca-Cola, and several hundred members of India's Chinese community.

India is home to the world's largest Tibetan exile community and while there were scattered Tibetan protests Thursday in New Delhi and other Indian cities, police kept them under control.

Authorities desperate to avoid the chaos that has plagued the torch runs in London, Paris and other Western cities had reason to be worried — even the flame's late-night arrival at New Delhi's airport was marred by small protests.

Some two dozen Tibetan exiles chanted anti-China slogans and protested along a busy highway as the torch made its way into the city.

In Mumbai, India's financial capital, police detained about 25 Tibetans who attempted to breach the barricades around the Chinese Consulate. Protesters shouted "Free Tibet" as they were dragged into police vehicles.

The protests even reached the isolated Indian Himalayan region of Ladakh, which borders Tibet, where at least 5,000 Tibetan exiles and local Buddhists marched amid a strike call that shut down all businesses and schools, said M.K. Bhandari, a senior local official.

Chanting "Free Tibet!" and "Down with China!" the protesters carried Tibetan flags as they marched through Leh, the region's main town. Ladakh is home to about 7,000 Tibetan exiles.

Tibetan exiles, who number more than 100,000 in India, have staged near-daily protests in New Delhi since demonstrations first broke out in Tibet in March and were put down by Chinese authorities.

In recent weeks, they 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 the Tibet protests.

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's hosting of the Olympics.

"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," said the Students for a Free Tibet, a strident exile group.

In Beijing, the Chinese government said it was pleased with India's security preparations.

"I think the Indian government will take effective measures to ensure the smooth and safe relay in New Delhi this evening," said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu.

Thousands of Tibetans also took part in their own torch run to highlight the Tibetan struggle.

The alternate run began Thursday morning with Buddhist, Hindu and Sikh prayers at the site where Indian pacifist Mohandas Gandhi was cremated. The torch was then lighted and Tibetans put on a show of traditional dancing.

Several dozen prominent Indians joined the Tibetans, who marched a few kilometers without incident.

Some exiles said they planned to make a more dramatic statement later in the day, but activists were sketchy about their plans.

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

But in India, public sympathy 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.