Torch Relay "a success" despite arrests

The Australian leg of Beijing's troubled Olympic torch relay has been declared "an outstanding success", despite seven arrests and clashes between protesters and Chinese supporters.

Thousands of chanting pro-China supporters from across the country flooded Canberra's streets with red flags from dawn before the Olympic flame travelled uninterrupted through the capital.

They easily outnumbered an estimated 2,000 pro-Tibet protesters who had pledged to peacefully highlight China's human rights record.

There was taunting and some heated scuffles between the two groups, and pro-Tibet protesters later accused Chinese students of violence and intimidation.

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

ACT chief police officer Michael Phelan said seven people were arrested and all charged under special major event laws put in place for the relay.

All seven, five of whom were pro-Chinese and two pro-Tibetan, remained in custody on Thursday afternoon.

However there was none of the violence or disruption which marred the torch relay in London or Paris, and which Canberra had feared.

ACT Chief Minister Jon Stanhope called the event "an outstanding success".

"It ran its full course, it was peaceful," Mr Stanhope told reporters.

"I'm absolutely chuffed."

Chairman of the Canberra torch relay Ted Quinlan said he was "relieved that it's over".

"Australia has shown the world again that we can organise an event better than anyone."

Metal barricades and 550 police kept protesters away from the torch during a security operation which had doubled in cost to $2 million.

Torchbearers were flanked by Australian police who at one stage repeatedly pushed aside blue-tracksuited Chinese officials 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, but later appeared resolved.

Mr Phelan called the incident "a slight communications misunderstanding".

"The most important thing is the flame was never in danger, from start to finish, and that's an enormous credit to our federal police," said ACT government spokesman Jeremy Lasek.

Excited torchbearers later praised the atmosphere and organisation of the event.

"It's a big carnival...I don't think we could have asked for anything better," said Olympian and swimmer Matt Welsh.

"It was very exciting ... it was incredible," swimming great Ian Thorpe said after completing his first ever torch relay run.

But hostilities marred the later stages of the relay, with police forced to break up fights between the two camps of protesters just before Thorpe arrived at the finishing line.

Amid pushing and shoving between the groups, Chinese supporters struck pro-Tibet demonstrators with flags, witnesses said.

Before the run began one man was arrested in a brief confrontation between rival groups on the shores of Lake Burley Griffin, and a Chinese flag was set on fire.

Tension mounted as the torch approached Parliament House, and at least two pro-Tibet protesters were pulled away as the flame approached.

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.

There were more serious clashes on Anzac Parade, near the Australian War Memorial, before the flame arrived.

Three protesters jumped the barricades and carried Free Tibet signs down the centre of Anzac Parade — a road flanked with memorials to Australia's war dead, reporters said.

About 50 pro-China demonstrators followed them and tried to cover the Tibetans and their signs with large red Chinese flags.

Pandemonium broke out as the two groups yelled at each other until police intervened.

Pro-Tibet protester Marion Vecourcay said she felt frightened and threatened by the Chinese demonstrators.

"They mobbed the sign, they were really aggressive, insulting and swearing," she said.

Pro-China demonstrator Jeff Li yelled at the pro-Tibet supporters: "The Dalai Lama is a hypocrite, a liar, an ugly man."

Mr Li said the pro-Tibet protesters were ill-informed.

"These people are idiots, they know nothing about China's history."

The Australia Tibet Council's Simon Bradshaw later accused Chinese supporters of intimidation and aggressive behaviour.

But Mr Phelan said police had received no complaints about the behaviour of the Chinese group.

Chinese supporters have denied claims they were bused in by the Chinese embassy for the visit of the torch, which was on Thursday night flown out to Nagano in Japan.

Copyright © 2008 Australian Associated Press (AAP)

Published in:
Sydney Morning Herald – http://news.smh.com.au/torch-relay- a-success-despite-arrests/20080424-287r.html