Chinese spectators 'attacked Tibet protesters at Canberra torch relay'

By Paul Larter

Mobs of Chinese supporters were accused of assaulting pro-Tibet campaigners on the sidelines of the Olympic torch relay in Australia today as scuffles broke out and at least seven protesters were arrested.

There was none of the violence or disruption that marred the torch relay in London or Paris, and the Olympic flame travelled uninterrupted through Canberra, the capital.

But observers said that behind the barricades Chinese nationals assaulted Tibetan activists and tore down their flags. Confrontations between an estimated 15,000 China supporters and about 3,000 pro-Tibet demonstrators reportedly flared all along the 16km route as the groups held aloft opposing banners and shouted competing slogans.

In one incident, an Australian couple waving a Tibetan flag were said to have been mobbed by dozens of Chinese activists and punched.

During the relay itself, pushing and shoving broke out between police and two Chinese attendants accompanying the torch.

One spectator said that he and others were assaulted by group of Chinese supporters who were following the torch's progress from behind the barriers.

Alastair Paterson and his seven-year-old daughter were standing next to a small group, which included a woman with a homemade banner saying "Free Tibet".

He said that as the torch passed by a gang of people with Chinese flags and sticks ran past.

"One bloke lined me up and kicked me and as I turned around he ran away," he said. "I took a step towards him and three or four others said 'Come on, Come on'. They wanted to fight me. The woman's husband got hit across the head with a stick. The woman got jostled. The banner got torn down and they basically ran off."

But police also wrestled away some pro-Tibet demonstrators, including at least one who tried to sit in the path of a torchbearer, the former marathon runner Robert de Castella.

Police running with the torch near Parliament House also wrestled a protester to the ground and handcuffed him before he was able to get close to the flame.

The five pro-Chinese and two pro-Tibetan demonstrators who were arrested remained in custody late today.

But officials declared the event "an outstanding success". Jon Stanhope, Chief Minister of the Australian Capital Territory, said: "It ran its full course. It was peaceful. I'm absolutely chuffed."

Metal barricades and 550 police kept protesters away from the torch. The torchbearers were flanked by Australian police who at one stage repeatedly pushed aside Chinese officials in blue tracksuits running close to the flame.

The incident with the controversial so-called Chinese flame attendants appeared to reflect confusion over their role in the torch's security.

At a press conference yesterday, Australian and Chinese officials argued over exactly what role the Chinese guards would play. Chinese officials said that the guards would "use their bodies to form a kind of defence for the torchbearer" in the event of a threat, while police maintained that they had sole responsibility for security.

Chinese supporters have denied claims they were brought into Canberra in up to 100 buses by the Chinese embassy for the visit of the torch, which was later flown out to Nagano in Japan.

Copyright © 2008 Times Online

Published in: – olympics/article3805542.ece

Photos by Tim Wimborne/Reuters and Renee Nowytarger/AP