Tibetans exiles in India protest Beijing Olympics

Aug. 08, 2008, 10:17 a.m. (ET)

NEW DELHI (AP) More than a thousand Tibetan exiles held protests in pouring rain Friday in New Delhi, chanting anti-China slogans and demanding freedom for Tibet hours ahead of the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics.

The protesters chanted "Free Tibet" and "Down with China" and waved Tibetan flags and a large banner that said, "Time is running out, stop the Olympics."

The protests were held in the heart of New Delhi amid tight security, with India reluctant to embarrass Beijing ahead of the games.

Hundreds of police and armed paramilitary soldiers surrounded the marchers and stood by with tear gas canisters and water canons.

Later, heavily armed police stopped dozens of protesters who tried to storm the Chinese Embassy to coincide with the games' opening ceremony. The troops and barricades erected earlier kept the three busloads of activists far from the Chinese mission.

More than 2,000 protesters also marched in Dharmsala, the north Indian hill town that is home to the Tibetan government-in-exile.

All shops and businesses run by Tibetans stayed closed Friday.

India is home to the largest Tibetan exile community and their exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama.

The protesters say that China's often harsh rule of Tibet goes against the Olympic spirit.

While China shows the world the progress it has made with a "grand opening ceremony, in Tibet a few thousand Tibetans will be in prison for merely practicing their freedom of expression," said Chimi Youngdrung, the head of the National Democratic Party of Tibet, one the dozens of rights groups based in Dharmsala.

"With protests around the world and in Beijing, the festival of peaceful activism has begun," he added.

In recent months, Tibetan exiles in India have been staging protests and trying to march to Tibet to show their support for the uprising that erupted in the Tibetan capital of Lhasa in March, and to protest China being allowed to stage the games.

The violent March protests were some of the biggest against almost 50 years of Chinese rule in Tibet. Many Tibetans insist they were an independent nation before communist troops invaded in 1950, while Beijing says the Himalayan region has been part of its territory for centuries.

The Dalai Lama has been vilified by Chinese authorities, who blame him for the recent unrest and claim he is trying to split the Himalayan region from the rest of China.

Nevertheless, the Dalai Lama has not joined calls to boycott the Olympics, saying he supports China hosting the games.

On Wednesday he issued a statement offering his "greetings to the People's Republic of China, the organizers and the athletes participating in the forthcoming Olympic Games in Beijing."