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Olympic relay completed without hassles

Runners carried the Olympic torch unimpeded through Australia's capital on Thursday cheered by thousands waving Chinese flags.

india Updated: Apr 24, 2008 14:15 IST

Runners carried the Olympic torch unimpeded through Australia's capital on Thursday cheered by thousands waving Chinese flags, but China critics launched protests nearby and a skywriting airplane wrote "Free Tibet" overhead. Australian organizers claimed victory because they largely avoided the chaotic scenes that marred relay portions held in Europe and the United States, which prompted Olympic officials to reconsider holding the event in future. Seven people were arrested. The Australia leg began without major incident as a half-dozen officers in jogging pants, T-shirts and baseball caps formed a loose cordon around the runner while other police manned crowd-control barriers.

Overhead, an airplane skywriter wrote "Free Tibet" in white letters.

About an hour into the relay, a man leaped out from the crowd and sat cross-legged about 10 meters (35 feet) in front of the runner. Police quickly hauled him away and the runner didn't stop. It was the closest any protester came to the torch during its three-hour journey as 80 runners carried it for 17 kilometers (10 miles) through Canberra's tree-lined boulevards.

Away from the route, three Tibetan women blocked the street in front of Parliament. Police also took them away. Another protester shouted "stop killing in Tibet," and he was led off. Protests over China's human rights record and its crackdown last month on anti-government activists in Tibet have turned the relay into a contentious issue for the Olympic movement. Many countries have changed routes and boosted security along the flame's six-continent journey to the Aug. 8-24 games in Beijing. People carrying Chinese flags strongly outnumbered those carrying Tibetan flags or placards criticizing Beijing's human rights record. At some places, chanting of "One China" broke out. Along the route, eager supporters waving Chinese banners tried to keep up with the relay.

Shortly before the start of the relay, television footage showed dozens of China supporters facing off against a group carrying blue-colored flags representing the China's Muslim minority Uighurs. Minor scuffling broke out as officials sought to separate the groups. Police said at least one person was arrested. Soon afterward, Tibetan activists set alight a Chinese flag. Police led away one person.

Seven people in total were arrested, and would likely face charges of causing a public disturbance, police spokeswoman Laura Keating said.

Five-time gold medal winner Ian Thorpe completed the relay by lighting a ceremonial cauldron.

Security to guard the 80 torchbearers was boosted - officials say the expense doubled in recent weeks to 2 million Australian dollars (US$1.9 million; euro1.2 million) - although the number of security forces was nowhere near the thousands who guarded the flame in India and Indonesia.

Pro-Tibet groups said before the relay that they were expecting 500 people in Canberra for peaceful protests. In response, Chinese student groups organized bus trips from Sydney and other cities for those wanting to support the relay.

"We didn't expect this reaction from the Chinese community which is obviously a well-coordinated plan to take the day by weight of numbers," Ted Quinlan, the chief organizer of the Australia relay, told the Australian Broadcasting Corp.

Chinese torch officials were allowed near the flame but had no security role, Canberra police chief Mike Phelan said. Officials estimated more than 10,000 people - mostly China supporters - attended the relay route and parks in Canberra. Local government spokesman Jeremy Lasek told Sky News television that organizers "feared the worst having seen incidents in the other cities around the world.

"We feel right now relieved but elated - we think we've pulled it off," he said.

The torch is now due to head to Nagano, Japan, where a historic Buddhist temple has backed out of plans to host the flame Sunday due to security concerns and unease among its monks about China's treatment of Buddhists in Tibet.

The torch will then go to South Korea before finally reaching China for a multi-location tour that includes controversial plans to take it up the Chinese side of Mount Everest.