By Karolos Grohmann and Timothy Heritage
SOCHI, Russia, Feb 6 (Reuters) - U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon condemned sexual discrimination and attacks on homosexuals on Thursday in comments that turned the spotlight on concerns over Russia's "gay propaganda" law at the Winter Olympics.
Ban made no direct reference to gay rights in Russia in a speech to Olympic officials in Sochi, the Black Sea city which is staging the Games, but his remarks underlined the intense scrutiny President Vladimir Putin is under because of the issue.
"Hatred of any kind must have no place in the 21st century," Ban told a meeting of the International Olympic Committee.
"We must all raise our voices against attacks on lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or intersex people... We must oppose the arrests, imprisonments and discriminatory restrictions they face."
Russia, hosting a winter Games for the first time, has come under heavy criticism over the law banning "gay propaganda" among minors because critics say it curtails the rights of homosexuals and discriminates against them.
The outcry has threatened Putin's efforts to use the Games to show how far Russia has come since the Soviet era. He has staked his personal and political prestige on the Games, and said people of "non-traditional" sexual orientation are welcome.
"I know that there has been some controversy over this issue. At the same time I appreciate President Putin for his assurance that there will be no discrimination whatsoever," Ban told reporters after delivering his speech.
Sochi could be "a venue where all the people, regardless of their sexual orientation, LGBT, all these people, will be able to enjoy harmony and friendship and mutual respect," he said.
"LEAVE THE KIDS ALONE"
Putin, who signed the law last summer, says it is intended to protect minors and that homosexuals will not be discriminated against during the Sochi Olympics.
A senior government official echoed that view shortly after Ban's speech, the first delivered by a United Nations secretary general at an International Olympic Committee session.
"We do not differentiate between people depending on their religion, or sexual relations or nationality. We're all grown-ups and every adult has the right to understand their sexuality," Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Kozak said.
Repeating a phrase used by Putin to defend the law, he told reporters: "Please do not touch kids."
Putin has also tried to show his compatriots are not homophobic by saying many Russians enjoy the music of Elton John, but the gay British singer responded by saying the "gay propaganda" law was "vicious".
Gay rights activists' calls for a boycott of the Games fell on deaf ears but the Russian organisers fear there could be protests.
A planned day of protest in 19 cities across the world on Wednesday failed to draw big crowds. But Telecoms company AT&T, a sponsor of the U.S. Olympic team, has publicly criticised Russia over the law.
"Russia's law is harmful to LGBT individuals and families, and it's harmful to a diverse society," AT&T said in a blog post headlined: "A Time for Pride and Equality." (Additional reporting by Keith Weir; Editing by Ossian Shine)
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