Facebook Twitter

Olympic flame unimpeded in Australia despite protests

SHARE Olympic flame unimpeded in Australia despite protests

CANBERRA, Australia — Torchbearers carried the Olympic flame unimpeded through the Australian capital Thursday, skirting pockets of protesters on the ground even as a skywriting plane spelled out "Free Tibet" above them.

Thousands of red flag-waving China supporters cheered on the runners. Some protesters said they were heckled and harassed by the pro-China demonstrators who vastly outnumbered them, and police at least once had to break up angry scenes between the two sides. Seven people were arrested.

Protests of China's human rights record and its crackdown last month on anti-government activists in Tibet have turned the worldwide Olympic torch relay into a contentious issue. Many countries have changed routes and boosted security along the flame's six-continent journey to the Aug. 8-24 games in Beijing.

Even though it was shortened because of the threat of protests, organizers said the Canberra leg compared favorably to other cities in the relay. The event was disrupted by protests in London, Paris and San Francisco.

"It was an outstanding success," John Stanhope, chief minister of the Australian Capital Territory, told a news conference.

The three-hour, 10-mile relay began without incident as a half-dozen officers in jogging pants, T-shirts and baseball caps formed a loose cordon around the torchbearer while other police manned crowd-control barriers.

Then a skywriting airplane spelled out "Free Tibet" in white letters overhead.

About an hour into the relay, a man leaped out from the crowd and sat cross-legged about 35 feet in front of the torchbearer. Police quickly hauled him away and the runner didn't stop.

It was the closest any protester came to the flame as 80 runners carried it along Canberra's tree-lined boulevards.

Five-time Olympic gold medal swimmer Ian Thorpe completed the final leg by lighting a ceremonial cauldron.

Away from the route, three Tibetan women blocked the street in front of Parliament, and police also took them away. Another protester shouted, "Stop killing in Tibet" and he, too, was led off.

People carrying Chinese flags — and sometimes chanting "One China!" — outnumbered those carrying Tibetan flags or placards criticizing Beijing's human rights record.

At one point, China supporters chased three protesters who had made it onto the relay route and jostled with them as they tried to cover "Free Tibet" signs with Chinese flags.

"They were really aggressive, insulting and swearing," said Marion Vecourcay, one of the activists. "It was just a mob mentality."

Broadcast video showed minor scuffles between protesters and police and a tense standoff between China supporters and human rights activists. Elsewhere, Tibetan activists burned a Chinese flag.

Police Chief Mike Phelan said seven people were charged with trying to disrupt the event. Each faces a maximum penalty of $1,419 in fines.

"We didn't expect this reaction from the Chinese community, which is obviously a well-coordinated plan to take the day by weight of numbers," Ted Quinlan, chief organizer of the Australia relay, told the Australian Broadcasting Corp.

Australian Federation of Chinese Organizations representative David Zhang said his Sydney-based non-governmental group had arranged buses for 5,000 students, but that all passengers had paid their own way.

The Chinese Embassy in Australia denied any involvement in sponsoring supporters. In Beijing, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu sidestepped a question about the accusations.

"I wonder if the people making these allegations ever considered whether the disruptive forces organizing disruptive activities ... ask those people what sort of outside help they received," Jiang told a briefing.

Chinese newspapers reported that 3,000 Chinese flags collected through an Internet donation drive had been shipped to Canberra to greet the torch.

The next stop for the flame is Nagano, Japan, where the route has already been shortened. From there, the flame goes to Seoul and North Korea's capital of Pyongyang before it finally reaches Chinese soil in Hong Kong on April 30.