Thai Leg of Olympic Torch Relay Gets Off to Peaceful Start

Thailand's leg of the Olympic torch run got off to a peaceful start Saturday, as thousands of flag-waving supporters in Bangkok's Chinatown celebrated while a lone protester stood nearby.

No trouble was reported along the route as about 100 human rights demonstrators faced off against an equal number of China supporters across from each other on the road where the torch passed.

From a stage by a large red Chinese-style gate, Thai dignitaries and the Chinese ambassador delivered brief speeches praising their countries' ties as athletes stood readying the torch for the relay.

Many in the festive crowd of onlookers waved Chinese and Thai flags.

A sole dissenter, a Western woman, carried a picture of the Dalai Lama, Tibet's exiled spiritual leader. Some members of the crowd shouted "get out," but no violence broke out.

Protests over China's crackdown on anti-government riots in Tibet have dogged the torch relay at various stops on its way to the Olympics' opening ceremony in August in Beijing.

Growing criticism of China's human rights record has turned the Olympics into one of the most contentious in recent history.

Security was tight in Bangkok but not overwhelming despite concerns about possible disruptions. Police mostly handled crowd control and directed traffic.

The run began when Bangkok Governor Apirak Kosayodhin handed the lit torch to a sportswear-clad colleague who set out through the streets of the capital, followed by many of the onlookers.

Eighty runners were to take part in the relay, expected to last two hours and 45 minutes.

Thai authorities had beefed up security in Bangkok's historic center with 2,000 police and barricades to protect the Olympic torch from protesters along its 6.3-mile route. Hundreds of crowd control and security personnel were also deployed.

Police kept a cautious watch for provocative anti-China signs or banners, as well as protesters possibly emerging from small alleyways when the torch passed.

Thai authorities warned earlier that any foreign activists who tried to disrupt the relay would be deported.

On Friday, Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej lashed out at potential protesters.

"Whoever tries to destroy the flame is crazy and unreasonable," he told reporters. "Why would anyone protest in Thailand? Why don't they protest in China?"

A coalition of human rights and other activist groups in Thailand staged a loud but peaceful protest in front the U.N.'s Asian headquarters, which is along the relay route in Bangkok.

"We want to show the Chinese government that the crackdown in Tibet did not spark outrage only in the Western world," said Pokpong Lawansiri, coordinator of the Free Tibet Movement.

They waved placards and chanted "Free Tibet" and "Shame, shame Hu Jintao," referring to China's president.

They were countered by an equal-sized, mostly Chinese-speaking crowd across the street yelling pro-China chants.

Before the torch passed by, police made a modest effort to disperse the pro-Tibet demonstrators, with one officer on a loudspeaker imploring them to "think of the reputation of the country and not be opportunistic." Police also videotaped the protesters.

A police helicopter was to follow overhead as the torch passed through the capital's historic sites including the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, the ceremonial Grand Palace and Chitralada Palace, the residence of King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

The torch was scheduled to leave for Malaysia on Saturday night.