Beijing, August 6:

US and British activists staged a dramatic protest in Beijing today, scaling a pole and unfurling giant “Free Tibet” banners close to the stadium where the Olympics will open in two days.

Police arrested the four members of the Students for a Free Tibet group after the stunt, the state-run Xinhua news agency said, reporting on the first major protest around the Olympic Village in the run-up to the Games. The two Britons and two Americans raised Tibetan flags and two 140-square-foot banners near Beijing’s iconic “Bird’s Nest” stadium, pictures released by the group showed.

The banners, which read “One World, One Dream: Free Tibet” and “Tibet Will Be Free”, were up for more than an hour before police managed to rip them down, the group said. “We did this action to highlight the Chinese government’s use of the Beijing Olympics as a propaganda tool,” one of the British protesters, Iain Thom, said in a message recorded while he was unfurling the banner and released on the group’s website.

The arrested group had still not contacted overseas supporters 12 hours after the action, although it was not known if they were still being detained or had been deported, a US-based spokeswoman said. The protest came despite unprecedented security around Beijing in the run-up to the Games, as China tried to avoid a repeat of protests that dogged the torch relays journey through Europe, the United States and parts of Asia.

China’s Olympic organisers condemned the protest. “As far as we know, four foreigners gathered illegally and we express our strong opposition to that,” Sun Weide, a spokesman for the Beijing Olympic organising committee, said. “We firmly oppose any attempt to politicise the Olympic Games.”

Activists seeking to pressure China over a range of issues have long promised to use the Games to raise awareness of their causes, which range from arrests of dissidents to Internet censorship. Students for a Free Tibet have been relentless campaigners against what they see as Chinese repression in Tibet that has been under Chinese rule since 1951.

In April, they staged a protest at Mount Everest base camp against plans to take the Olympic torch to the mountain and they unfurled a giant banner along the Great Wall of China exactly a year before the opening ceremony.