Olympic torch relay descends into chaos
From Associated Press – Paris’ Olympic torch relay descended into chaos Monday, with protesters scaling the Eiffel Tower, grabbing for the flame and forcing security officials to repeatedly snuff out the torch and transport it by bus past demonstrators yelling “Free Tibet!”
The relentless anti-Chinese demonstrations ignited across the capital with unexpected power and ingenuity, foiling 3,000 police officers deployed on motorcycles, in jogging gear and even inline skates.
Chinese organizers finally gave up on the relay, canceling the last third of what China had hoped would be a joyous jog by torch-bearing VIPs past some of Paris’ most famous landmarks.
Thousands of protesters slowed the relay to a stop-start crawl, with impassioned displays of anger over China’s human rights record, its grip on Tibet and support for Sudan despite years of bloodshed in Darfur.
Five times, the Chinese officials in dark glasses and tracksuits who guard the torch extinguished it and retreated to the safety of a bus – the last time emerging only after the vehicle drove within 15 feet of the final stop, a track and field stadium. A torchbearer then ran the final steps inside.
Outside, a few French activists supporting Tibet had a fist-fight with pro-Chinese demonstrators. The French activists spat on them and shouted, “Fascists!”
In San Francisco, where the torch is due to arrive Wednesday, three protesters wearing harnesses and helmets climbed up the Golden Gate Bridge and tied the Tibetan flag and two banners to its cables. The banners read “One World One Dream. Free Tibet” and “Free Tibet.”
On Tuesday, China condemned protests as “despicable,” blaming them on groups seeking to split Tibet from the country.
The 17.4-mile route in Paris started at the Eiffel Tower, headed down the Champs-Elysees toward City Hall, then crossed the Seine before ending at the Charlety track and field stadium.
Throughout the day, protesters booed trucks emblazoned with the names of Olympic corporate sponsors, chained themselves to railings and hurled water at the flame. Some unfurled banners depicting the Olympic rings as handcuffs from the Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame cathedral. Others waved signs reading “the flame of shame.”
The Interior Ministry said police made 18 arrests.
Officers sprayed tear gas to break up a sit-in by about 300 pro-Tibet demonstrators who blocked the route. Police tackled protesters who ran at the torch; at least two activists got within arm’s length before they were grabbed by police. Near the Louvre, police blocked a protester who approached the flame with a fire extinguisher.
One detained demonstrator, handcuffed in a police bus, wrote “liber” on her right palm and “te” on the other – spelling the French word for “freedom” – and held them up to the window.
With protesters slowing down the relay, a planned stop at Paris City Hall was canceled. Earlier, French officials hung a banner declaring support for human rights on the building’s facade.
A spokesman for the French Olympic Committee, Denis Masseglia, estimated that a third of the 80 athletes and other VIPs who had been slated to carry the torch did not get to do so.
On a bus carrying French athletes, one man in a track suit shed a tear as protesters pelted the vehicle with eggs, bottles and soda cans.
The chaos started at the Eiffel Tower moments after the relay began. Green Party activist Sylvain Garel lunged for the first torchbearer, former hurdler Stephane Diagana, shouting “Freedom for the Chinese,” before security officials pulled him back.
“It is inadmissible that the games are taking place in the world’s biggest prison,” Garel said later.
Outside parliament, as the torch passed, 35 lawmakers protested, shouting “Freedom for Tibet.”
“The flame shouldn’t have come to Paris,” said Carmen de Santiago, who had “free” painted on one cheek and “Tibet” on the other.
Pro-Chinese activists carrying national flags held counter-demonstrations.
“The Olympic Games are about sports. It’s not fair to turn them into politics,” said Gao Yi, a Chinese doctoral student in computer science.
France’s former sports minister, Jean-Francois Lamour, stressed that though the torch was extinguished along the route, the Olympic flame itself still burned in a lantern where it is kept overnight and on airplane flights. A Chinese official said that flame was used to re-light the torch each time it was brought aboard the bus.
Pro-Tibet advocate Christophe Cunniet said he and other activists were detained after they waved Tibetan flags, threw flyers and tried to block the route. Cunniet said police kicked him, cutting his forehead. “I’m still dazed,” he said.
At least one athlete, former Olympic champion Marie-Jose Perec, was supportive of the demonstrators. “I think it is very, very good that people have mobilized like that,” she told French television.
But other athletes and sports officials were bitterly dismayed.
“A symbol like that, carried by young people who want to deliver a message of peace, should be allowed to pass,” said the head of the French Olympic Committee, Henri Serandour. “These games are a sounding board for all those who want to speak about China and Tibet. But at the same time, there are many wars on the planet that no one is talking about.”
International Olympic Committee spokeswoman Giselle Davies agreed. “We respect that right for people to demonstrate peacefully, but equally there is a right for the torch to pass peacefully and the runners to enjoy taking part in the relay,” she said.
China’s Foreign Ministry assailed the demonstrations. “We express our strong condemnation to the deliberate disruption of the Olympic torch relay by Tibetan separatist forces,” Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said in a Web statement. “Their despicable activities tarnish the lofty Olympic spirit and challenge all the people loving the Olympic Games around the world.”
Jiang also disputed reports that the torch had to be extinguished several times, calling them false. “To protect the security and dignity of the Olympic torch under the circumstances there, the modes of relay were temporarily changed,” she said. Jiang did not provide additional details.
Police had hoped to prevent the chaos that marred the relay in London a day earlier. There, police had repeatedly scuffled with activists and 37 people were arrested.
Beijing organizers criticized the London protests as a “disgusting” form of sabotage by Tibetan separatists.
“The act of defiance from this small group of people is not popular,” said Sun Weide, a spokesman for the Beijing Olympic organizing committee. “It will definitely be criticized by people who love peace and adore the Olympic spirit. Their attempt is doomed to failure.”
French President Nicolas Sarkozy has left open the possibility of boycotting the Olympic opening ceremony depending on how the situation evolves in Tibet. Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said Monday that was still the case.
Activists have been protesting along the torch route since the flame embarked on its 85,000-mile journey from Ancient Olympia in Greece to the Aug. 8-24 Beijing Olympics.
The round-the-world trip is the longest in Olympic history, and is meant to highlight China’s rising economic and political power. Activists have seized on it as a platform for their causes.
The relay also is expected to face demonstrations in New Delhi and possibly elsewhere on its 21-stop, six-continent tour before arriving in mainland China May 4.