Protests disrupt torch relay in Paris

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

PARIS -- Paris' Olympic torch relay descended into chaos Monday, with protesters scaling the Eiffel Tower, grabbing for the flame and forcing security officials to repeatedly snuff out the torch and transport it by bus past demonstrators yelling "Free Tibet!"

The relentless anti-Chinese demonstrations ignited across the capital with unexpected power and ingenuity, foiling 3,000 police officers deployed on motorcycles, in jogging gear and even inline skates.

Chinese organizers finally gave up on the relay, canceling the last third of what China had hoped would be a joyous jog by torch-bearing VIPs past some of Paris' most famous landmarks.

Thousands of protesters slowed the relay to a stop-start crawl, with impassioned displays of anger over China's human rights record, its grip on Tibet and support for Sudan despite years of bloodshed in Darfur.

Five times, the Chinese officials in dark glasses and tracksuits who guard the torch extinguished it and retreated to the safety of a bus -- the last time emerging only after the vehicle drove within 15 feet of the final stop, a track and field stadium. A torchbearer then ran the final steps inside.

Outside, a few French activists supporting Tibet had a fistfight with pro-Chinese demonstrators. The French activists spat on them and shouted, "fascists!"

The 17.4-mile route started at the Eiffel Tower, headed down the Champs-Elysees toward city hall, then crossed the Seine before ending at the Charlety track and field stadium.

Throughout the day, protesters booed trucks emblazoned with the names of Olympic corporate sponsors, chained themselves to railings and hurled water at the flame. Some unfurled banners depicting the Olympic rings as handcuffs from the Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame cathedral. Others waved signs reading "the flame of shame."

The Interior Ministry said police made 18 arrests.

Officers sprayed tear gas to break up a sit-in by about 300 pro-Tibet demonstrators who blocked the route. Police tackled protesters who ran at the torch; at least two activists got within arm's length before they were grabbed by police. Near the Louvre, police blocked a protester who approached the flame with a fire extinguisher.

With protesters slowing down the relay, a planned stop at Paris City Hall was canceled. Earlier, French officials hung a banner declaring support for human rights on the building's facade.

A spokesman for the French Olympic Committee, Denis Masseglia, estimated that a third of the 80 athletes and other VIPs who had been slated to carry the torch did not get to do so.

Activists have been protesting along the torch route since the flame embarked on its 85,000-mile journey from Ancient Olympia in Greece to the Aug. 8-24 Beijing Olympics.

In San Francisco, where the torch is due to arrive Wednesday, three protesters wearing harnesses and helmets climbed up the Golden Gate Bridge and tied the Tibetan flag and two banners to its cables. The banners read "One World One Dream. Free Tibet" and "Free Tibet."

The round-the-world trip is the longest in Olympic history, and is meant to highlight China's rising economic and political power. Activists have seized on it as a platform for their causes.

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