Olympic flame hijacked by anti-capitalist protesters

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The Independent Online

Italian demonstrators have hijacked the Olympic torch on its way to the Winter Games in Turin in unprecedented protests targeting the event's sponsors, Coca-Cola.

Eleanora Berlanda, the Italian 1,500 metres champion runner, was pounding the streets of the northern city of Trent bearing the torch when eight protesters, their faces hidden by scarves, burst through barriers along her route and grabbed at it.

Ms Berlanda tried to fend them off, but was soon overwhelmed and gave up. Four of her attackers seized the torch and held it aloft. Police intervened and the flame was handed back to the runner, who continued on her way to Turin's ski slopes. The flame is due in Turin on 9 February for the Games, which run from 10-26 February.

Four of the protesters escaped, but the other four were arrested and taken to a local police station, where an angry group of anarchists gathered outside in solidarity. The anarchists were booed and jeered by the crowd who had gathered to watch the progress of the flame. Some bystanders shouted "buffoni, buffoni," (buffoons) as the anarchists were led away.

"How sad, how it makes me angry too," said Ms Berlanda. "The torch is a symbol of universal peace. It never entered my head that anyone would think of offending it." Valentino Castellani, president of the Turin Olympic Committee (Toroc), called Monday night's incident an "indescribable attack".

To avoid further protests, the Games supervisor, Mario Pescante, and the Mayor of Turin, Sergio Chiamparino, have asked Toroc to change the route of the flame over the coming days to bypass the village of Bussoleno in the lower Susa Valley, the heartland of a movement which is protesting against a high-speed railway.

The torch has been involved in 33 incidents staged by anarchists and anti-globalisation activists since it left Rome on 8 December on its way to Turin.

The radical Mayor of Bussoleno has upset Olympics organisers by banning advertisements within his village for Coca-Cola, an official Olympics sponsor, seen as a symbol of the consumer culture threatening the Alpine Susa Valley. Scores of protesters have lain down in front of lorries carrying Coca-Cola to the Olympics site, drawing a strong reaction from the government. "It is unacceptable that a mayor wearing an Italian tricolour sash does not want to let the torch pass according to the foreseen procedures," said Italy's Ministry for Sport. "We will take the flame where it is welcome. Many people, the great majority, do want to see it."

The protests have gathered momentum thanks to a campaign in the lower Susa Valley against a high-speed rail link through the Alps. The incident with the torch happened as anti-globalisation demonstrators gathered in Trent for the most recent of several rallies they have called against the preparations for the February games.

They are opposed to the construction of a tunnel through mountains in the Susa Valley as part of plans to build a high-speed rail link between Turin and Lyon. Mass demonstrations in the valley in December forced the government to re-examine the scheme. But hardline groups are keeping up the pressure on the government to abandon the project completely.

A short-time before Monday's incident the Italian Interior Minister, Giuseppe Pisanu, condemned the protests against the Olympic flame as "in bad taste". He called on the rail demonstrators "to isolate the extremist anarcho-insurrectionalists" who he said had infiltrated their campaign. Police sources said the extremist groups have been under surveillance. Mr Pisanu said he was not so much worried about terrorist attacks but that there could be "illegal actions at a low-level of violence that nevertheless create great disturbance".