Bush to attend Beijing Olympics opening gala

US President George W. Bush will attend the opening ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics, defying boycott calls from critics of China's record on human rights and in Tibet, the White House said.

Some world leaders are skipping the August 8 gala, and the two principle US presidential rivals had strongly urged Bush to at least consider not going in order to highlight concerns about religious and political freedoms in China.

But "the president and Mrs Bush will attend the opening ceremonies of the Summer Olympic Games on August 8" as part of a trip to China after stops in South Korea and Thailand, Bush spokeswoman Dana Perino said in a statement Thursday.

The decision was expected to anger human rights activists and critics of a mid-March Chinese crackdown in Tibet, including many in the president's Republican party who regularly target Beijing over alleged abuses.

And both major presumptive White House rivals -- Bush's fellow Republican John McCain and Democrat Barack Obama -- have urged the president to consider shunning the gala if China's record does not improve.

Bush had always said he would go to the Olympics -- seen as a symbolic "coming-out" party for China as a major world power -- to encourage US athletes and rejected calls to use the competition for diplomatic leverage.

"It says I'm supporting our athletes is what it says. And I don't view the Olympics as a political event. I view it as a sporting event," he told ABC television in an April interview.

"And, you know, I have brought up religious freedom and Darfur and Burma and the Dalai Lama before the Olympics, during the Olympics, and after the Olympics I'll bring it up," said Bush.

His stop in China will come as part of what may be his farewell trip to Asia, with stops in South Korea and Thailand, though the White House has yet to announce the dates for his departure from Washington or his return.

The White House had said earlier this week that Bush would be in South Korea August 5 and 6, but Perino later retracted that announcement as "premature" but "not inaccurate" while offering a "little bit of an apology" to Seoul.

In South Korea, Bush and his counterpart Lee Myung-Bak will discuss efforts to get their respective legislatures to ratify the US-South Korea free trade pact, amid violent protests in South Korea against a deal to resume US beef imports, said Perino.

In Thailand, Bush will "celebrate 175 years of the US-Thailand relationship" and discuss regional and bilateral issues with Thai Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej, she said.

In China, Bush will meet with President Hu Jintao and other top officials to discuss key issues including progress towards stripping North Korea of its nuclear programs, said Perino.

The US president heads to Japan Saturday for a summit of the Group of Eight industrialized nations as well as bilateral talks with leaders of Japan, Russia, Germany, India, China, and South Korea.

Perino said earlier that Bush was "pleased" that Beijing was holding talks with representatives of the Dalai Lama, Tibet's spiritual leader, but stressed that his attendance at the opening ceremonies did not depend on the outcome.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy has linked his attendance to progress in a second round of talks between China and the Dalai Lama over the situation in Tibet.

The Tibetan government-in-exile says 203 Tibetans have been killed and about 1,000 injured in the Chinese crackdown. China denies this, saying Tibetan "rioters" and "insurgents" killed 21 people.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has said she is not going to the ceremonies, while British Prime Minister Gordon Brown is also not attending, although his office insists he never intended to.

The ceremonies are due to be held in the 80,000-seat National Stadium in Beijing -- nicknamed the Bird's Nest because of the intricate lattice work on its outer shell.

Copyright © 2008 Agence France Presse

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