[Sri Lanka Daily Mirror]

BEIJING: China bluntly told the world Olympics chief Thursday to keep out of politics, in a tart exchange on human rights following days of protests that have shadowed the Olympic torch around the world.

International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge said the Games were in “crisis” following the demonstrations, and urged China to respect its pledge to improve its rights record before the event begins in August.

China fired back that Rogge should keep politics out of the Olympics, which Beijing hoped would showcase its much-touted “peaceful rise” to power — but which have instead become a public relations nightmare.

Separately, China’s Ministry of Public Security said it had cracked a terrorist group in its Muslim-dominated northwest that was plotting to kidnap foreign journalists, tourists and athletes during the Olympics.

A taciturn Rogge, in a visit to the host country, admitted he was “saddened” that these Olympics, dogged by protests over Tibet and calls for a boycott, were not simply a global celebration of sport.

It was “not the joyous party that we had wished it to be,” Rogge said in Beijing, nevertheless insisting that the torch relay — disrupted by protests in Greece, London, Paris and San Francisco — would go on.

He also told a news conference that China — under fire over a crackdown in Tibet and a host of other issues — had promised that winning the right to host the Games would lead to an improvement in human rights.

“We definitely ask China to respect this moral engagement,” he added.

Foreign ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu told reporters that Rogge’s view of a “crisis” might have been exaggerated, and made it clear China would not engage in a discussion on its human rights performance.

“I believe IOC officials support the Beijing Olympics and adherence to the Olympic charter of not bringing in any irrelevant political factors,” she said.

“I hope IOC officials continue to adhere to principles of the Olympic charter.”

When asked later Thursday whether tension had surfaced between Rogge and the Chinese authorities, IOC spokeswoman Giselle Davies said: “No, not at all.”

”Relations are very good,” she said.

Attention to China’s rights record intensified last month when protests in Tibet against Chinese rule of the region erupted into violence and spread to other areas of the country.

Exiled Tibetan leaders say more than 150 people were killed in the ensuing crackdown by China.

Beijing insists its security forces have killed no one while trying to quell the protests, but that Tibetan “rioters” killed 20 people.

However China sealed off the areas to foreign reporters and other independent monitors, and global rights groups have said they fear those detained could face torture.

Beijing has repeatedly blamed the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, for the unrest — and insists calls for a boycott should be ignored.

The Dalai Lama, on a visit to Japan, said China had the right to host the Games but blamed Beijing for the unrest, saying there was no freedom of speech in his homeland.

“They really deserve” the Olympics, he said. “In spite of the unfortunate events in Tibet, my position has not changed.”

Pro-Tibet groups, human rights activists and other campaigners have shadowed the flame from the moment it was lit in Greece on March 24, starting its 20-country, 137,000-kilometre (85,000-mile) journey across the globe.

Protesters severely disrupted the torch relay this week in London and Paris, where officials had to extinguish the flame several times.

There was no major trouble in San Francisco after organisers shortened the course for the only US leg and switched the route, disappointing thousands who hoped to see the flame before its next stop in Buenos Aires.

“The Olympic torch relay will continue in all sorts of weathers to spread the Olympic spirit …,” Jiang, China’s foreign ministry spokeswoman, told Xinhua news agency.

Some activists have said they fear that, rather than improving the situation, China is using the Games to justify cracking down even harder on critics at home.

China’s security chiefs said Thursday that they had broken two terrorist groups in its heavily Muslim northwestern region of Xinjiang, where there have lately also been reports of protests against the government.