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Friday, Dec 13, 2019

Olympic torch extinguished on Paris run

Chaotic protests over China's crackdown on Tibet force security officials to put out the Olympic torch twice during a relay in Paris.

world Updated: Apr 07, 2008 22:21 IST
Elaine Ganley
Elaine Ganley

Chaotic protests against China's human rights policies forced security officials to extinguish the Olympic torch twice during a relay on Monday through Paris that became a tortured procession of stops and starts.

Despite huge police security, with 3,000 officers deployed, at least two activists got within little more than an arm's length of the flame before they were grabbed by police. Officers tackled numerous protesters to the ground and bodily carried some away. They also squirted tear gas to disperse protesters who blocked the route. Also taken away was a protester who threw water at the torch but failed to extinguish it.

The first time the procession was interrupted, a crowd of activists waving Tibetan flags confronted the torch on a road along the Seine River. The torch was put out and brought on board a bus to continue partway along the route.

Less than an hour later, the flame was being carried out of a Paris traffic tunnel by an athlete in a wheelchair when the procession was halted by activists who booed and chanted "Tibet." Once again, the torch was temporarily extinguished and put on a bus. Activists angry about China's human rights record and repression Tibet managed to circumvent officers on motorcycles, in jogging gear and on inline skates. Demonstrators scaled the Eiffel Tower and hung a banner depicting the Olympic rings as handcuffs. Police said they did not immediately have a count of the number of arrests. Mireille Ferri, a Green Party official, said she was held by police for two hours because she approached the Eiffel Tower area with a fire extinguisher. In various locations throughout the city, protesters carried Tibetan flags and waved signs reading "the flame of shame."

Riot police squirted tear gas to break up a sit-in protest by about 300 pro-Tibet demonstrators who blocked the torch route. France's former sports minister, Jean-Francois Lamour, stressed that though the torch had been put out, the Olympic flame itself still burned in the lantern where it is kept overnight and on airplane flights.

"The torch has been extinguished but the flame is still there," he told France Info radio.

Police had hoped to prevent the chaotic protests that marred the relay in London a day earlier. There, police had repeatedly scuffled with activists angry about China's human rights record leading up to the Beijing Olympics August 8-24. One protester tried to grab the torch; another tried to snuff out the flame with what appeared to be a fire extinguisher. Thirty-seven people were arrested. In Paris, police had drawn up an elaborate plan to try to keep the torch in a safe "bubble." Torchbearers were encircled by several hundred officers, some in riot police vehicles and on motorcycles, others on skates or on foot. Boats patrolled the Seine, which slices through the French capital, and a helicopter flew overhead.

About 80 athletes were expected to carry the torch over the 28-kilometer (17.4-mile) route that started at the Eiffel Tower, heading down the Champs-Elysees avenue toward City Hall, then crosses over the Seine before ending at the Charlety track and field stadium.

Stephane Diagana, a former world hurdles champion who is now president of France's national athletics league, was the first to carry the torch, climbing down the stairs of the Eiffel Tower. Across town, City Hall draped its building with a banner reading, "Paris defends human rights around the world."

One torch bearer, two-time French judo gold medalist David Douillet, told RTL radio that he regretted the choice of China "because it isn't up to snuff on freedom of expression, on total liberty, and of course, on Olympic values."

French President Nicolas Sarkozy has left open the possibility of boycotting the Olympic opening ceremony in Beijing depending on how the situation evolves in Tibet. Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said Monday that was still the case.

Activists have been protesting along the torch route since the flame embarked on its 85,000-mile (140,000-kilometer) journey from Ancient Olympia in Greece to Beijing.

The torch's round-the-world trip is the longest in Olympic history, and it is meant to shine a spotlight on China's economic and political power. Activists have seized upon it as a backdrop for their causes, angering Beijing.

Beijing organizers criticized London's protesters, saying Monday that their actions were a "disgusting" form of sabotage by Tibetan separatists.

"The act of defiance from this small group of people is not popular," said Sun Weide, a spokesman for the Beijing Olympic organizing committee. "It will definitely be criticized by people who love peace and adore the Olympic spirit. Their attempt is doomed to failure."

The torch relay also is expected to face demonstrations in San Francisco, New Delhi and possibly elsewhere on its 21-stop, six-continent tour before arriving in mainland China May 4.