Updated: Thursday, 06 February 2014 15:50 | By Agence France-Presse

Olympics: UN chief in gay rights plea, US warns of toothpaste bombs

UN chief Ban Ki-moon Thursday called for an end to attacks and discrimination against gays on the eve of official opening of the Sochi Olympics, as the United States warned of toothpaste bombs on flights to Russia.

Olympics: UN chief in gay rights plea, US warns of toothpaste bombs

Austria's Romed Baumann takes part in a Men's Alpine Skiing Downhill training session at the Rosa Khutor Alpine Center on February 6, 2014, before the start of the Sochi Winter Olympics - by Alexander Klein

The build-up to the 22nd Winter Olympics 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 at the Games on Thursday, Ban told a session of the International Olympic Committee in Sochi that everyone should join together to battle against 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.

Ban's comments came as more than 200 leading international authors including Salman Rushdie, Margaret Atwood and Jonathan Franzen criticised Russia's anti-gay and blasphemy laws  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.

Toothpaste bomb warning

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.

"While we are not aware of a specific threat to the homeland at this time, this routine communication is an important part of our commitment to making sure we meet that priority," it said.

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, taking place close to Russia's restive Northern Caucasus region.

Russian security forces are still fighting Islamist insurgents in the Northern Caucasus and militants have threatened to strike targets in Russia during the Games.

About 40,000 members of the Russian security forces are on duty in an around Sochi during the Games 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.

Friday's opening ceremony will be attended by more than 40 heads of states 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.

In the mountains above Sochi, snowboarder Billy Morgan was the first competitor in action on Thursday. Women's freestyle skiing and team figure skating also start on and alpine skiers will be training.

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