South Korea and China disputed blame on Tuesday for violence by Chinese supporters at the Olympic torch relay here, with Seoul vowing a tough response but Beijing saying they were protecting the flame.In what threatens to become a diplomatic spat, South Korean Prime Minister Han Seung-Soo said attacks on Korean protesters during Sunday’s relay damaged national pride.

“Legal and diplomatic measures are necessary as the incident hurt national pride considerably,” South Korea’s Yonhap news agency quoted Han as telling a cabinet meeting.

He did not elaborate on what the measures might be.

The row is a further blow to the troubled Beijing Olympic torch, which has been dogged by pro-Tibet activists and critics of China’s human rights record since it left Greece last month on its round-the-world journey.

Anger is growing here over the clashes, recorded on widely circulated video clips, in which Chinese students attacked Koreans protesting Beijing’s rights record.

Justice Minister Kim Kyung-Han told the cabinet that the “illegal violent protests” were very regrettable. “The justice ministry will sternly deal with those responsible, regardless of their nationality.”

Kim said authorities were analysing video clips, adding: “We will go after all those responsible and bring them to account.”

National Police Agency chief Eo Cheong-Soo said Chinese embassy officials had indicated about 1,000 Chinese students were expected to welcome the torch, but 6,500 showed up.

“The Chinese side had worried about attempts to disturb the torch relay but as it turned out, disorderly, impetuous acts were committed by some Chinese students,” Eo told journalists.

The government Monday voiced its “strong regret” to China’s ambassador at the students’ behaviour, which was also fiercely criticised by newspapers and Internet users.

Howeever China, which has repeatedly denounced the anti-Chinese chaos that has hit earlier relay legs, notably in London and Paris, declined to directly condemn the behaviour of its own students.

“Some Chinese students came out to safeguard the dignity of the torch. I believe that’s natural,” foreign ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said.

“Perhaps there were some radical actions, but we should recognise the real situation there,” she added.

“We condemn large-scale violent demonstrations. As to the Chinese students and overseas Chinese, they just had some friction with those who disrupted and sabotaged the torch relay there. That’s totally different.

“We express our solicitude to the South Korean individuals and police who were injured in the process.”

The clashes broke out when around 300 protesters, including North Koreans, demonstrated against China’s forced repatriation of North Korean refugees and its crackdown on Tibetans following violence in the Himalayan region.

Thousands of Chinese demonstrators had also gathered for the start of the relay. In one clash some of the Chinese threw water bottles, stones, chunks of wood and drink cans at their adversaries.

In another incident, Chinese students surrounded and beat up a small group of protesters, according to witnesses. A local newspaper photographer was hit in the head by a stone thrown by the students.

In yet another encounter, recorded on video, hundreds of agitated Chinese chased a few protesters into a hotel lobby and attacked them.

Two American students wearing T-shirts reading “Free Tibet” were mobbed by before being rescued by police, Chosun Ilbo and other newspapers said.

Chosun, the largest-selling daily, said that it doubted “whether China has the common sense and standards to host the Olympic Games.”

The liberal Hankyoreh daily said the conduct of the protesters had “aroused concern that Chinese nationalism is becoming excessive and violent.”