Putin says gays at Olympics must 'leave children alone'

MOSCOW (AFP) - Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday said gays need not fear persecution at the Winter Olympic Games, but stood by a controversial ban on promoting homosexuality to children.

"We don't have a ban on non-traditional sexual relations between people," Mr Putin told a group of volunteers who will be working at the Games.

"We have a ban on the propaganda of homosexuality and paedophilia," Mr Putin said in televised comments from host city Sochi, with three weeks to go until the event.

"We don't ban anything and we won't arrest anyone," he said. "Therefore you can feel calm, relaxed. But leave children alone please."

Gay rights activists around the world have called for a boycott of the Sochi Winter Olympic Games in protest against a law banning the dissemination of so-called "gay propaganda" to minors.

His rhetoric echoed that of Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Kozak, who in Sochi last year said that gay athletes could "get on with their private life... but not involve children".

The president's comments, reiterating a stance that suggests homosexuals prey on young people, were unlikely to appease critics of the ban.

United States President Barack Obama has pointedly announced he was sending an Olympic delegation that included no acting officials but several openly gay sports figures, among them tennis legend Billie Jean King.

Mr Putin on Friday urged respect for Russia's "traditions and culture".

"We treat all of our partners with respect and we ask them to also treat our traditions and culture with respect."

He also criticised politicians in other, unnamed countries for backing the legalisation of paedophilia.

"In certain countries of the world, by the way, they are already raising the possibility of legalising paedophilia," he said in comments published on the Kremlin website.

Last year a leader of Germany's Greens said he regretted in the 1980s supporting a call by paedophile groups for the decriminalisation of sex with children. A Dutch party with no representation in parliament also campaigned for this.

"Parties are posing this question in some parliaments. So does that mean we have to trot after them like doggies, heading for unknown consequences?" Mr Putin asked.

In a sign that Russia could go further in its anti-gay legislation, a senior cleric from the Russian Orthodox Church, which is closely allied to Mr Putin, this month called for a national debate on returning a Soviet-era law repealed in 1993 that criminalised gay sex.

An opinion poll last year by the Levada independent polling agency found that 12 per cent of Russians thought gay people should be isolated from society, while three per cent thought they should be "destroyed".

During Mr Putin's tour of Sochi on Friday, one of the volunteers who will assist visitors at the Games commented on their rainbow-coloured uniforms and asked the Russian leader if they could be breaching the ban on gay propaganda.

"How did it happen that we have a law banning gay propaganda, but the volunteers' uniform is rainbow coloured?" she asked.

Mr Putin answered tersely: "If you think I designed the uniform, you are very much mistaken."

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