Protests turn Paris Olympic torch run into farce

Click to follow
The Independent Online

The Olympic torch relay became a debacle as it passed through Paris today, with organisers forced to carry the flame by bus after pro-Tibet protesters tried to seize it and officials had to extinguish it.

Chinese authorities condemned as "vile" the growing campaign by activists to use the buildup to the Beijing Olympics as a stage on which to condemn China's record in Tibet, on human rights in general and in its foreign policy.

They said there would be no change to the elaborate ritual of carrying the flame around the world.

The Paris torch relay hit trouble almost as soon as it set off from the Eiffel Tower, and was repeatedly halted by protesters who threatened to break through the imposing security cordon thrown around the athletes carrying the flame.

The torch had to be extinguished because of a technical problem, French police said. A Chinese official was quoted by Xinhua news agency as saying it was put out for safety reasons.

"Boycott Chinese goods" and "Save Tibet" read banners held by demonstrators.

"We are doing our best but it will take the world to put pressure on China to help bring democracy and human rights to Tibet," said Phurbu Dolker, a 21-year-old Tibetan refugee.

At least 23 people were briefly detained by police, a spokesman for the Free Tibet movement said.

Embarrassed Chinese organisers cancelled a reception for the torch at Paris city hall at the last minute after a banner supporting human rights was hung from the facade, Paris mayor Bernard Delanoe told reporters.

"The Chinese officials decided they would not stop here because they were put out by Parisian citizens expressing their support for human rights. It is their responsibility," he said.

It was a second consecutive day of chaos for the torch run.

Thousands of protesters waving Tibetan flags and shouting "Shame on China" turned Sunday's British leg of the international relay billed by Beijing as the "harmonious journey" into an obstacle course. Police detained 35 people.

International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Jacques Rogge said on Monday he was very concerned "with the international situation and what's happened in Tibet".

"Violence for whatever reason is not compatible with the values of the torch relay and the Olympic Games," he said in a speech to the Association of National Olympic Committees (ANOC) in Beijing. "Some people have played with the idea of boycotts. As I speak today, there is no momentum for a general boycott."

"A tiny number of Tibet independence elements sought to disrupt the relay of the Olympic Games sacred flame through London," Xinhua quoted a spokesperson for the Beijing Olympic Games torch relay office as saying of the London events.

"We strongly condemn this vile behaviour."

Beijing Organising Committee Director of Media and Communications Wang Hui told a news conference:

"The smooth progress of the torch relay cannot be stopped and will definitely be a big success. We strongly condemn the few (Tibet) separatists. They will be condemned by people all over the world and are doomed to failure."

Tibet's capital, Lhasa, was hit last month by Buddhist monks' protests against Chinese rule which gave way to rioting. Since then security forces have poured in to reimpose control there and in other restive Tibetan areas.

Exiled Tibetans accuse China of systematic oppression of the Himalayan region over decades, and of the killing, torture and unjust imprisonment of those who oppose Beijing's rule.

The first group of suspects accused of deadly rioting in Lhasa last month will soon go on trial, the China News Service reported, quoting officials.

The Olympic flame's next destination is San Francisco, where it is expected to ignite more anti-Chinese protests. As well as Tibet, activists are also focusing on Sudan, where critics say Beijing has not done enough to help stop violence in Darfur.

China accuses Tibet's exiled Buddhist leader, the Dalai Lama, of organising the unrest. Tibet's Communist Party chief Zhang Qingli has called him a "jackal in Buddhist monk's robes".

Chinese popular opinion strongly backs official claims that followers of the Dalai Lama deliberately timed the unrest to disrupt the Olympics. The Dalai Lama has denied the accusations and said he wants autonomy, not independence, for Tibet.

Speaking at a Beijing news conference after meeting Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark said she had called on China to reopen dialogue with the Dalai Lama.

China says 19 people died in the Lhasa unrest, mostly at the hands of Tibetan rioters. Representatives of the Dalai Lama say about 140 people died in broader unrest across Tibet and nearby areas, most of them Tibetans killed by Chinese security forces.