PARIS (Reuters) - Chinese officials cut short a relay of the Olympic torch through Paris on Monday after thousands of pro-Tibet protesters forced it to be extinguished and turned the event into a shambles.
The flame had to be snuffed out at least twice and sheltered in a bus on several occasions to protect it from the mass of demonstrators who repeatedly blocked its path, denouncing China’s crackdown on Tibet.
Apparently angered by a human rights banner hanging from Paris city hall, the Chinese organizers called off a reception for the torch cortege at the last minute and sped past hundreds of flag-waving protesters awaiting the flame’s arrival.
“Free Tibet,” the crowds chanted, with bystanders repeatedly charging the imposing security cordon to try to grab the flame in scenes reminiscent of the protests that hit the torch’s chaotic journey through London on Sunday.
“No flames in Tibet,” said one banner strung from a bridge over the River Seine. “Boycott Chinese goods,” said another banner, while hundreds of brightly colored Tibetan flags fluttered in the cold winter sunlight.
Hundreds of pro-Chinese supporters also joined the crush, waving aloft the red Chinese flag, and there were occasional scuffles between the different camps as they awaited the flame.
The relay organizers finally threw in the towel near the French national assembly after parliamentarians rolled out a banner backing human rights. The flame was put onto a bus and driven down to the final stage of the relay in southern Paris.
There, former swimming champion Christine Caron set alight a cauldron in front of the Charlety stadium and in a carefully stage-managed show, fireworks flashed up around the podium.
But the real fireworks were seen on the streets of Paris, with the build up to the August Beijing Olympics rapidly becoming a public relations disaster for the Chinese organizers.
Olympic officials and government ministers were clearly embarrassed by the mayhem that unfolded around the capital despite some 3,000 police being called up to control the crowds.
“The Olympic flame is a symbol of peace, of respect and of solidarity. Olympic values were a bit ridiculed today,” Sports Minister Bernard Laporte told France 2 television.
“It’s not very good for the image of France,” he added.
Chinese authorities appeared to have complete say over the relay, switching off the torch when they feared protesters were too close and skipping the town hall ceremony.
“The Chinese officials decided they would not stop here because they were put out by Parisian citizens expressing their support for human rights. It is their responsibility,” Paris mayor Bertrand Delanoe said after the flame failed to show up.
The French leg of the relay set off at 12.30 p.m. (1030 GMT) from the Eiffel Tower, but what Beijing has called a “harmonious journey” rapidly became a violent obstacle course.
Police clad in riot gear detained 18 demonstrators, the Interior Ministry said, wrestling some of them to the ground when they tried to cross the security barriers.
Television showed one protester lying in the road, his face smeared with blood. “We want free Tibet” he shouted.
“We are doing our best but it will take the world to put pressure on China to help bring democracy and human rights to Tibet,” said Phurbu Dolker, a 21-year-old Tibetan refugee.
The Olympic flame will now fly to its next stop, San Francisco. It is expected to remain a magnet for anti-Chinese protests ahead of the games.
The flame is due to return to Beijing on August 6, two days before it will be used to light the cauldron at the Olympic opening ceremony.
Additional reporting Brian Rohan; Writing by Patrick Vignal and Crispian Balmer; Editing by Charles Dick