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Olympic torch relay goes uninterrupted in Australia

CANBERRA, Australia - Organizers claimed victory Thursday after torchbearers skirted pockets of protesters under a sky where a plane had spelled out "Free Tibet" to carry the Olympic flame through Australia's capital.


CANBERRA, Australia - Organizers claimed victory Thursday after torchbearers skirted pockets of protesters under a sky where a plane had spelled out "Free Tibet" to carry the Olympic flame through Australia's capital.

Although seven people were arrested, organizers said the Canberra leg of the relay compared favourably to other cities, where the event was shut down early or disrupted by protesters.

"It was an outstanding success," John Stanhope, chief minister of the Australian Capital Territory, told a news conference.

The next stop is Nagano, Japan, where the route has already been truncated. From there, the flame goes to Seoul and North Korea's capital Pyongyang before it finally reaches Chinese soil in Hong Kong on May 2.

Some pro-Tibet demonstrators said they were heckled and harassed by China supporters who vastly outnumbered them and police at least once had to break up angry scenes between the two sides.

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. Many countries have changed routes and boosted security along the flame's six-continent journey to the Aug. 8-24 games in Beijing.

The Australia leg began without 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.

Then an airplane skywriter wrote "Free Tibet" in white letters overhead.

About an hour into the relay, a man leaped out from the crowd and sat cross-legged about 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 16 kilometres 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, too, was led off.

People carrying Chinese flags - and sometimes chanting "One China!" - outnumbered those carrying Tibetan flags or placards criticizing Beijing's human rights record.

At one point, China supporters chased a trio of protesters who had made it onto the relay route and jostled with them as they tried to cover "Free Tibet" signs with Chinese communist flags.

"They were really aggressive, insulting and swearing," said Marion Vecourcay, one of the activists. "It was just a mob mentality."

Television footage showed minor scuffles between protesters and police and a tense standoff between China supporters and human rights activists. Elsewhere, Tibetan activists set alight a Chinese flag.

Canberra police chief Mike Phelan said seven people were charged with attempting to disrupt the event. Each faces a maximum penalty of $1,419 in fines.

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

Australian Federation of Chinese Organizations representative David Zhang said his Sydney-based non-governmental group had arranged buses for 5,000 students, but that all passengers had paid their own way.

 
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