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Moscow - UN chief Ban Ki-moon on Thursday called for an end to attacks and discrimination against gays on the eve of the official opening of the Sochi Olympics, as the United States warned of toothpaste bombs on flights to Russia.
The build-up to the 22nd Winter Games has been overshadowed by fears over security and human rights - with a law passed last year banning the dissemination of “gay propaganda” to minors criticised by activists as vehemently homophobic.
Speaking as sporting action got under way on Thursday, Ban told a session of the International Olympic Committee in Sochi that everyone should join together fight discrimination.
“We must all raise our voices against attacks on lesbians, gays, bisexual, transgender or intersex people. We must oppose the arrest, imprisonment and discriminatory restrictions they face,” he said.
“I know principle six of the Olympic Charter enshrines the IOC's opposition to any form of discrimination.
“Hatred of any kind must have no place in the 21st century,” said Ban, who did not specifically address the situation in Russia.
Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Kozak later denied there was discrimination in Russia but said there should be no gay rights protests at the Olympics.
“Political propaganda during sporting events is forbidden by the Olympic charter and Russian law,” he said.
More than 200 leading international authors including Salman Rushdie, Margaret Atwood and Jonathan Franzen criticised the anti-gay law as well as blasphemy legislation as a “chokehold” on creativity, in an open letter published in Britain's Guardian newspaper.
And Russian punk protest group Pussy Riot defied President Vladimir Putin by calling for a “Russia that is free” at a star-studded New York concert where they were feted by Madonna and cheered by thousands.
As well as rights concerns, the Games have been stalked by fears of terror attacks.
The United States on Wednesday warned American and foreign airlines that militants could try to hide explosives in toothpaste tubes on Russia-bound flights.
An official told AFP it has information “specifically targeting flights to Russia”.
In a statement, the Department of Homeland Security said that “out of an abundance of caution” it regularly shares relevant information with partners both at home and abroad.
Two US warships have arrived in the Black Sea and will stand ready to offer assistance in the case of a security emergency at the Sochi Olympics.
Military officers said the vessels would be capable of providing a range of assistance, including potential evacuations of Americans or other foreign nationals, in the event of a possible terror attack.
Suicide bombings in the southern Russian city of Volgograd in late December killed 34 people and raised fresh concerns about the ability of the Russian authorities to ensure security during the Games.
Russian security forces are still fighting Islamist insurgents in the Northern Caucasus region, which is close to Sochi, and militants have threatened to strike targets in Russia during the Olympics.
About 40 000 members of the Russian security forces are on duty in and around Sochi in one of the tightest operations ever mounted at an Olympics.
The Games are the biggest event that Russia has hosted since the fall of the Soviet Union and the project has been championed by Putin ever since the successful bid in 2007.
Workers were rushing to finish accommodation facilities, with some members of the media complaining their rooms were still a work in progress. But the government insisted Russia was ready.
“The main question people asked was whether we would manage it,” said Kozak. “The answer is clear - we have implemented the biggest investment project in recent Olympic history.”
He said Russia had been waiting to host the Olympics again since the 1980 Moscow Summer Games, adding: “We have earned the right to host this celebration of peace and sport.”
Friday's opening ceremony will be attended by more than 40 heads of state including Chinese President Xi Jinping and embattled Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, who is facing protests at home.
But no major Western leader is expected in what many see as a snub to Russia over its rights climate.
Openly gay tennis legend Billie Jean King has withdrawn from the US presidential delegation to the Games, citing the ill-health of her mother.
Under stunning blue skies in the mountains above Sochi, British snowboarder Billy Morgan was the first competitor in action on Thursday. Women's freestyle skiing and team figure skating also start and alpine skiers began training. - AFP