Bhaichung calls decision not to carry torch personal,Sikkim elated

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Kolkata/Gangtok, Apr 1 (UNI) Indian soccer skipper Bhaichung Bhutia today reiterated that his decision not to carry the Olympic torch when it arrives in Delhi is entirely his 'personal decision' and free from 'pressure or influence'.

Talking to UNI in Kolkata today, Bhaichung said, ''It was an entirely personal decision based on my feelings. I was not led by any influence. One should not read too much into it.'' Told about speculations in the media that he might be under pressure for having made such a decision, Indian football's best ambassador abroad said, ''This is a very small issue. I don't want it to be blown out of proportion. I expressed my personal decision.

There is no pressure whatsoever.'' Bhaichung will not carry the flame when it reaches New Delhi on April 17. He faxed his decision to the Indian Olympic Association yesterday after he had been chosen for the honour of carrying the Olympic torch on the India leg of its journey.

Bhutia, a Buddhist, said yesterday, ''I sympathize with the Tibetan cause. I have many friends in Sikkim who follow Buddhism.

This is my way of standing by the people of Tibet and their struggle. I abhor violence in any form. I feel whatever is happening in Tibet is not right and in my small way I should show my solidarity.'' This is the first time in his football career spanning over a decade and half that Bhutia transgressed the line that separates sports from politics.

However, the Tibetan community in Sikkim is jubilant over his withdrawal from the Indian leg of the Olympic torch relay.

''Tibetans in Sikkim are very grateful to Bhaichung Bhutia for supporting our cause,'' Sikkim Tibetan Youth Club (STYC) President Zimba Pencho told UNI today in Gangtok.

Bhutia's home state has around 5,000 Tibetan refugees. Recently, the STYC members had joined a protest march by the Northeast Zonal Tibetan Youth Congress at Rangpo to demand a passage to Tibet through the Nathu La pass.

Mr Pencho added that all the Tibetans as well as Bhutia's friends in Sikkim were elated over his stand.

Sherpa Lepcha, Bhutia's close friend, also endorsed his stand.

They had studied and played club football together in Kolkata with the Mohun Bagan and East Bengal.

''Bhaichung told me that he was withdrawing from the Olympic torch relay as he was concerned over the Tibetans' cause,'' Mr Lepcha said.

Meanwhile, the star footballer's mentor and uncle Karma T Bhutia claimed that he had no inkling about Bhaichung's plans.

''It is upto him to take his own decision. If it was something related to football, I would have advised him,'' Karma T Bhutia said.

UNI BA-BG PL AB KN1534

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