Pro-China relay fans outnumber protesters in Canberra

Thousands of pro-China fans dwarfed the few hundred Tibet supporters in the Australian leg of the Olympic torch relay. Several people were arrested as police tussled with Chinese escorts over who was running security. Roger Maynard reports.


Several people were arrested as thousands of Chinese supporters and pro-Tibet protesters demonstrated at the Olympic torch relay through Australia's capital Thursday, police and witnesses said.

At the same time, Australian police and tracksuit-clad Chinese torch escorts tussled over their positions in the relay in a physical manifestation of a long running verbal dispute over who was in charge of security.

On several occasions, Australian police pulled one of the Chinese escorts back from alongside the runner carrying the torch, until they appeared to reach a compromise as the relay continued on its 16-kilometre (10-mile) route.

On Wednesday, Chinese and Australian officials openly disagreed at a press conference about the role of the Chinese attendants, who were described by top British Olympic official Sebastian Coe as "thugs".

At least four people were arrested before the relay began, police said, while witnesses reported at least three more were pounced on by security as they tried to block the torch's progress along the route.

"Three men were detained and one woman was released after a disturbance" ahead of the start, police told The Australian Online.

"They have been charged with interfering with the event. Of those people, three were Chinese supporters and another was a pro-Tibet protester."

The torch, symbol of the Beijing Games, is on the Asian stretch of a world tour that began with protests in Greece when the flame was lit on March 24.

The flame has become the focus of international demonstrations against China's role in Tibet and the Olympic host's human rights record, and the relay attracted angry protests in Europe and the United States.

In the chilly dawn hours before the start of the Canberra relay, several thousand Chinese supporters gathered under national flags while a much smaller group of pro-Tibet demonstrators held their own banners.

Tibetan protesters chanted "Shame on China" and "Human Rights for Tibet" while Chinese supporters replied with "Stop Lying" and "One China Forever".

Organisers were repeatedly forced to warn the two groups to separate after some carrying Chinese flags attempted to surround the Tibetan group.

A Chinese flag was set on fire and police escorted away a pro-Tibetan supporter.

Jeremy Lasek, an official from the Australian Capital Territory's chief minister's office, urged supporters with Chinese flags to stay on one side, noting that "otherwise, this event is not going to happen.

"I appeal to you please, this is a city and country of peace, people with the red flags please stay on this side. This event is about peace, it's about the Olympic Games," he said.

Canberra Olympic relay committee chairman Ted Quinlan said the presence of a large number of pro-China visitors appeared to be a well organised move.

"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," he said. "We have assurances that it will be done peacefully."

As the run got under way, an aircraft wrote "Free Tibet" with smoke in the sky above the route. Later another light aircraft towed a banner reading "Go Go Beijing Olympics" over the capital.

In Australia's most populous city Sydney on Wednesday, the day the torch arrived in the country, six people were arrested for raising pro-Tibet banners on major city landmarks.

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