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Olympic flame carried through quiet New Delhi

Authorities sealed off the center of their normally frenetic capital Thursday with 15,000 police to protect the Olympic torch relay from anti-China protesters who held their pro-Tibet demonstrations elsewhere in India.
Image: Indian policemen detain a Tibetan protester
Indian policemen detain a Tibetan protester close to the Chinese consulate in Mumbai on Thursday. The Olympic torch arrived in New Delhi to be met immediately with protests from members of the world's largest community of exiled Tibetans, who vowed to disrupt its passage through the Indian capital.Arko Datta / Reuters
/ Source: The Associated Press

Authorities sealed off the center of their normally frenetic capital Thursday with 15,000 police to protect the Olympic torch relay from anti-China protesters who held their pro-Tibet demonstrations elsewhere in India.

By the time the torchbearers had traversed the shortened New Delhi route of the round-the-world relay, protesters had come nowhere near the Olympic flame — and only a few hundred selected guests had managed to see it at all.

Security was among the tightest ever in central New Delhi, with rings of protection — first, Chinese in blue tracksuits; then, Indians in red ones — surrounding torchbearers as they jogged from the presidential palace to the India Gate monument, which commemorates India’s dead in World War I.

India has the world’s largest community of Tibetan exiles, many of whom see the torch relay ahead of this summer’s Beijing Olympics as an important stage to protest Chinese rule over Tibet. Thousands held a peaceful mock torch relay earlier Thursday elsewhere in New Delhi, and protests were also held in other Indian cities, including Mumbai, where 25 people who tried to storm the Chinese consulate were detained.

Much of New Delhi’s leafy British colonial-era center — the administrative heart of India, home to Parliament and government ministries — was closed to traffic and pedestrians. Streets were sealed for blocks around the route, which had been sharply cut back to about two miles by worried organizers and officials.

The route left the 70 runners, who ranged from athletes like tennis star Leander Paes to Bollywood celebrities, able to jog for just a few seconds before handing the flame to the next person.

Several buses of police followed the runners along the route, where the crowds amounted to little more than a couple hundred young people sitting on bleachers wearing T-shirts of a torch relay sponsor, Coca-Cola, and a couple hundred members of India’s Chinese community.

The televised scenes of the sparse streets, though, were clearly outweighed by the Indian authorities’ desire to avoid the chaos of torch runs in London, Paris and San Francisco.

When trouble did break out Thursday, police quickly brought it under control.

Small groups of protesters repeatedly emerged from side streets a few blocks from the relay route, many shouting “Free Tibet!” and scattering pamphlets, but were hustled away by police. Authorities refused to disclose how many people were arrested.

“We feel humiliated,” said Tashi Dhundup, 32, a Tibetan exile who runs a shop in New Delhi, speaking at a prayer rally after the torch relay. “All Tibetans feel very bad about the government decision not allowing us near the parade route.”

Sitting nearby, though, another protester acknowledged India’s dilemma.

“We understand that the Indian government had to do these things to keep good relations with China,” said Tenzin Tashi, 25, who works in a call center.

India is home to the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader, as well as the Tibetan government in exile, and Indian officials are trying forge closer ties with the Chinese after decades of frosty relations.

Still, the country saw a number of protests.

Some two dozen Tibetan exiles chanted anti-China slogans and protested along a busy highway after the flame arrived early Thursday. Several were detained.

In Mumbai, India’s financial capital, police detained about 25 Tibetans who attempted to breach the barricades around the Chinese Consulate.

The protests also reached the Indian Himalayan region of Ladakh, which borders Tibet, and at least 5,000 exiles and local Buddhists chanted “Free Tibet!” and “Down with China!” as they marched through Leh, the region’s main city, said M.K. Bhandari, a senior local official.

Thousands of Tibetans also participated in the mock torch run in New Delhi.

It began 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 miles without incident.

In neighboring Nepal, police detained more than 500 Tibetan exiles who protested near the Chinese Embassy in the capital Katmandu and shouted “Free Tibet,” police said.

A number of Indian athletes and entertainers withdrew from the Olympic torch run in recent days, although most blamed injuries or scheduling conflicts.

Indian Olympic Association President Suresh Kalmadi used his speech at the relay’s end to praise those who did join.

“Those athletes that have carried the torch today have done their duty towards the Olympics and their country,” he said.

The Olympic flame, which began its worldwide six-continent trek from Greece on March 24, has been the focus of protests over China’s human rights record.

The turmoil over the torch relay and the growing international criticism of China’s policies on Tibet and Darfur have turned the Olympics — which begin Aug. 8 — into one of the most contentious in recent history.

The flame heads next to Bangkok, Thailand, where authorities say they may shorten Saturday’s relay route to about six miles because of security concerns.