April 7, 2008
Olympic Torch Relay Descends Into Chaos
Security officials snuffed out the Olympic torch and carried it through Paris in the safety of a bus at least five times Monday as chaotic protests against China's human rights record turned the relay into a chaotic series of stops and starts.
Despite massive security, at least two activists got within almost an arm's length of the flame before they were grabbed by police. A protester threw water at the torch but failed to extinguish it and was taken away. Officers tackled numerous protesters and carried some away.
At the start of the relay, on the Eiffel Tower's first floor, Green Party activist Sylvain Garel lunged for the first torchbearer, former hurdler Stephane Diagana, shouting "Freedom for the Chinese!" Security officials pulled Garel back.
"It is inadmissible that the games are taking place in the world's biggest prison," Garel said later.
The procession continued but a crowd of activists waving Tibetan flags soon interrupted it by confronting the torchbearer on a road along the Seine River. The demonstrators did not appear to get within reach of the torch, but its flame was put out by security officers and put on board a bus to continue part way along the route.
Less than an hour later, the flame was being carried out of a traffic tunnel by a woman 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.
The third time, security officials apparently interrupted the procession because they spotted demonstrators ahead. After the torch was put on a bus, protesters threw plastic bottles, cups and pieces of bread at the vehicle and at a male wheelchair-bound athlete.
The torch disappeared back inside the bus a fourth time shortly after a protester approached it with a fire extinguisher near the Louvre art museum. Police grabbed the demonstrator before he could start to spray.
The flame was whisked into a bus again outside the National Assembly, where protesters gathered. A session of parliament was interrupted and a banner on the building read: "Respect for Human Rights in China." City Hall draped its building with a banner reading, "Paris defends human rights around the world."
Other demonstrators scaled the Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame cathedral and hung banners depicting the Olympic rings as handcuffs.
About 3,000 officers were deployed on motorcycles, in jogging gear and with inline roller skates.
Police said they made at least 10 arrests but did not expect to have a full count before evening.
Pro-Tibet advocate Christophe Cunniet said he and around 20 other Tibet advocates were detained after they waved Tibetan flags, threw flyers and tried to block the route. Cunniet said police kicked him, cutting his forehead. "I'm still dazed," he said.
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, activists angry about China's human rights record and crackdown on protesters in Tibetan areas 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 demonstrators who blocked the torch route.
"The flame shouldn't have come to Paris," said protester Carmen de Santiago, who had "free" painted on one cheek and "Tibet" on the other.
Torchbearer Diagana said he was disappointed to see the protests, though he understood why activists were there.
"Nothing is happening as planned. It's unfortunate," he told France 2 television.
At least one athlete was supportive of demonstrators. Former Olympic champion Marie-Jose Perec told French television: "I think it is very, very good that people have mobilized like that."
Pro-Chinese activists carrying national flags held counter-demonstrations.
"The Olympic Games are about sports. It's not fair to turn them into politics," said Gao Yi, a Chinese second-year doctoral student in Paris in computer sciences.
France's former sports minister, Jean-Francois Lamour, stressed that, though the torch was put out aboard the bus, 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 chaos 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 Aug. 8-24. One protester tried to grab the torch; another tried to put 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. Boats patrolled the Seine River, which slices through the French capital, and a helicopter flew overhead.
About 80 athletes had been scheduled to carry the torch over the 17.4-mile route that 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.
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 journey from Ancient Olympia in Greece to Beijing.
The round-the-world trip is the longest in Olympic history, and is meant to highlight China's economic and political power. Activists have seized on it as a platform for their causes, angering Beijing.
Beijing organizers criticized London's protesters, saying 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.