/ 7 April 2008

Protests cut short Paris Olympic flame relay

The Paris leg of the Beijing Olympic flame relay was cut short on Monday after citywide protests against China’s crackdown in Tibet forced the torchbearers to take refuge on a bus.

The torch’s journey by foot ended outside the French Parliament, where protesting deputies hung a Tibetan flag on a railing. It was taken by bus on the final half of its trip to a stadium in the south of the city.

Scuffles broke out as soon as the flame left on its journey from the Eiffel Tower, with police hauling men and women out of the planned route while a man in a wheelchair was knocked over in the chaos.

The torchbearers were forced, at least four times, to take refuge on a bus as they struggled through the capital protected by a phalanx of motorcycle outriders, jogging firemen and police on rollerblades.

At one point the torch flame was extinguished, although French police later insisted that was due to a “technical fault”.

A high-profile ceremony planned at city hall was called off after officials draped a Tibetan flag and a black banner showing the Olympic rings turned into handcuffs over city hall.

Paris Mayor Bertrand Delonoe said Chinese Olympic organisers had changed their route to avoid the protests.

At least five people were arrested, including a local politician wielding a fire extinguisher, two pro-Tibet campaigners and two media rights activists who tried to vault over the security cordon protecting the flame.

As the relay set off from the Eiffel Tower, hundreds of pro-Tibetans booed and jeered from Human Rights Square across the River Seine.

They carried banners with messages such as “Tiananmen 1989 — Lhasa 2008” and “For a bloody world welcome to the Olympics made in China”.

Three activists managed to climb up inside the Eiffel Tower and unfurl a flag with the Olympic rings as handcuffs, chaining themselves to the monument.

Media rights group Reporters sans Frontières later hung the same flag from a building on the Champs-Elysees as the torchbearers made their way up the famous avenue — booed and jeered by onlookers.

‘A great success’

The incidents came a day after rowdy protests on the torch’s London leg, where its progress was disrupted several times and where it also had to be briefly put on a bus for security.

International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge called on Monday on China to peacefully end unrest in Tibet, piling further pressure on the nation’s communist rulers ahead of the Beijing Games in August.

“Violence for whatever reason is not compatible with the values of the torch relay or the Olympic Games,” he said at a meeting of National Olympic Committee heads in Beijing.

Exiled Tibetan leaders say more than 150 people have been killed in the unrest, which began on March 10, triggered by what Tibetans say has been nearly 60 years of repression under Chinese rule.

China insists its security forces have killed no one while trying to quell the protests. It says Tibetan “rioters” have killed 20 people.

In China, the state-controlled CCTV’s late-night news reported briefly on the protests, saying a small number of people tried to disrupt the flame’s journeys through London and Paris.

The Xinhua news agency later issued a dispatch in English saying the torch was extinguished twice “for safety reasons”.

The leader of the Tibetan community in Paris, Thupten Gyatso, called the day of protests a “great success”.

But the head of the French Olympics Committee condemned the protests as “highly regrettable”.

From Paris the flame leaves for the Americas, with stops in San Francisco on Wednesday and Buenos Aires on Friday, on the latest leg of a worldwide tour from Greece to Beijing. — AFP