Olympic Torch Run Halted as Protests Spread

KATRIN BENNHOLD and ELISABETH ROSENTHAL

PARIS – What was supposed to be a majestic procession through the French capital for the Olympic torch turned into chaos Monday as thousands of people from around Europe, many with Tibetan flags, massed to protest the relay and deny China the promotional boost it hoped for in the runup to the games.

The torch went out several times, and police officers had to bring it onto a bus to try to protect it as demonstrators swarmed the security detail. In the end, organizers canceled the final leg of the procession, deciding to have the torch transported by bus.

Despite heavy security, at least one activist got within a meter of the pack of Rollerblading police officers crowding around the torchbearer. On several occasions, officers were seen tackling protesters. A police official quoted by The Associated Press said 28 people were arrested.

It was the second time in two days that the torch relay had been disrupted in a European capital. About 3,000 police officers – on foot, horseback, Rollerblades, motorbikes and even boats in the Seine – had been deployed in an attempt to prevent a repeat of the scenes played out in London on Sunday, when the relay turned into a tumult of scuffles and dozens of people were arrested.

But the Paris leg proved just as chaotic. At the start of the relay, a man identified as a Green Party activist was grabbed by security officers as he headed for Stéphane Diagana, the president of France’s national athletics league and a former world champion in the 400-meter hurdles, who was carrying the torch from the first floor of the Eiffel Tower. The man was tackled before he got close to Diagana.

An event that was supposed to burnish China’s image around the world has turned into a public relations nightmare – not only for China, but also for the nations along the torch’s route.

The Summer Games and the torch’s journey have served as rallying points for opponents of the Chinese government, most notably those supporting autonomy or freedom for Tibet.

The 5:30 Eurostar train from London to Paris on Sunday evening carried a large contingent of activists moving from one protest to the next, including Tibetan nuns who had been jailed in China for 12 years and Tibetan athletes who live in Switzerland and who call themselves Team Tibet.

The attention has focused public attention on a cause that has languished on the international back burner for many years. At the International Campaign for Tibet the phones have been ringing off the hook – from media outlets, politicians, and people wanting to sign petitions and host events – said Jan Willem den Besten, the campaign coordinator for the Netherlands who was in Paris on Monday morning.

“What is most dramatic is to see how broad and deep the support has become,” said den Besten, who accompanied the nuns from London. “You almost have to feel sorry for the Chinese because its turned completely against the public image they wanted to present.”

In Paris, again and again protesters interrupted what was supposed to be a triumphant procession. On a street along the Seine, the police said, protesters forced officers to retreat with the torch onto a bus to continue along the route. Around the same time, the flame went out for a first time – for “technical reasons” unrelated to the protests, a police spokeswoman said, speaking on condition of anonymity in accordance with policy. About an hour later, the flame was being carried out of a traffic tunnel by an athlete in a wheelchair when the procession was again halted by activists who booed and chanted “Tibet,” The Associated Press reported.

The torch was extinguished for a second time and again put on a bus despite protesters’ apparent failure to get close this time, The AP said, which reported that the flame went out at least four times in total.

By the time it reached the Arc de Triomphe and descended along the Champs-Elysées, the torch was once again carried by an athlete but was barely visible through the dense escort of officers and police vans. A helicopter circled above as a rival teams of onlookers, cheering supporters waving Chinese flags and protesters responding with chants demanding “freedom” for Tibet, crowded behind metal barriers lined by paramilitary police officers. A small truck decorated in the Olympic logo and carrying a percussion band was almost inaudible.

In Beijing on Monday, a spokeswoman for the city’s Olympic organizing committee – speaking before the disruptions in France but after the London protests – vowed that the relay would continue on its international tour. “The torch represents the Olympic spirit, and people welcome the torch,” said Wang Hui, the spokeswoman.

Ms. Wang spoke at a hurriedly organized news conference that was apparently intended to address the protests Sunday in London. “The general public is very angry at this sabotage by a few separatists,” she said. “Some people, they want to disrupt the torch relay. And this will not do any good.”

The prospect of the Chinese Olympic torch traveling through Europe’s cities – from Athens to Istanbul, St. Petersburg, London and now Paris – has even created a bond between groups of protesters who previously had little in common.

In Paris, at the Trocadéro opposite the Eiffel Tower, Amnesty International, the human rights group and Reporters Without Borders, which advocates greater press freedom, protested side by side with representatives from a banned underground Chinese democracy party, Taiwan nationalists and proponents of independence for the Uighurs, a Muslim minority group in western China.

“We all have the same problem,” Can Asgar, a leader of the Uighur diaspora in Munich, yelled into a microphone at Trocadéro. “Freedom for Uighurs. Freedom for Tibet. We must fight together.”

The range of China’s opponents was so thoroughly covered that Amnesty International has a hard time finding a niche: they protested today on behalf of a blind Chinese human rights lawyer who is in prison in Shandong Provice in eastern China.

Meanwhile, the chairman of the International Olympic Committee, Jacques Rogge, used a meeting of national Olympic committee representatives in Beijing on Monday to criticize the London protests, but also to call for a rapid and peaceful solution to the confrontations in Tibet.

“The torch relay has been targeted. The I.O.C. has expressed serious concerns and calls for rapid, peaceful resolution in Tibet,” Rogge said in a speech to the Association of National Olympic Committees, according to Reuters.

“Violence for whatever reason is not compatible with the values of the torch relay and the Olympic Games,” he said. “Some people have played with the idea of boycotts. As I speak today, there is no momentum for a general boycott.”

But after the meeting the head of the Norwegian Olympic Committee, Tove Paule, said in an interview that the torch relay should be reconsidered.

“The International Olympic Committee may have a bigger problem when the torch relay continues, if we get more of these demonstrations,” Paule was quoted as saying by NRK, the Norwegian public broadcaster, Reuters reported. “One will have to look at whether the plans need to be changed.” It was not immediately clear whether she was talking about changing the route or scrapping the relay altogether.

As the relay began in Paris, the French authorities had appeared determined to try to spare China – and France – the disorder that occurred in London, resorting to measures normally reserved for a visiting head of state.

Their efforts drew scorn from protesters, who angrily noted the heavy police presence. Armed officers guarded sensitive Metro exits along the 28-kilometer, or 17-mile, route.

“One would almost think oneself in Lhasa,” said Jean-Paul Ribes, leader of the Support Committee of the Tibetan People in France, who was among the thousands massed on the Trocadéro. “It snowed last night, now the sky is blue – and police are everywhere.”

Many protesters – demonstrating against China’s human rights policies in general or for a free Tibet, or simply advocating a boycott of the Olympics in Beijing – echoed a headline that was emblazoned across the front page of the leftist daily Libération, under a picture of the Olympic rings restyled as handcuffs: “Liberate the Olympic Games!”

Protesters came to Paris from all around Europe, including four busloads from Belgium. Lobsang Dechen, a 29-year-old Tibetan refugee who has lived in Belgium for four and a half years, said that Europeans should help the cause of Tibet by boycotting the Games. “China does not deserve to be the host,” she said. “They have to first learn to respect human rights in Tibet.”

Kevin Khayat, 19, a design student in Paris and a member of the International Federation for Human Rights, said sports should be separated from politics. “I am against a boycott, and in favor of human rights,” he said. He handed stickers to demonstrators urging: “Let’s keep our eyes open.”

Protests took different forms along the route. A banner calling for human rights across the world was hung on Paris City Hall. Demonstrators hung a banner depicting Olympic rings as handcuffs from Notre Dame Cathedral. Supporter of Reporters Without Borders chained themselves to the Eiffel Tower.

Lawmakers from the opposition Socialist Party stood outside the National Assembly, France’s lower house of Parliament, wearing Tibetan colors.

“We cannot miss this opportunity to send a message on human rights,” said Jean-Marc Ayrault, the organizer of the initiative and president of the Socialists’ parliamentary group. He condemned the conspicuous police presence in Paris. “This looks more like a military parade than an Olympic celebration.”

In London on Sunday, the torch was relayed on a seven-hour journey from the new Wembley soccer stadium in the city’s northwest to the principal site for the 2012 Summer Olympics in Stratford in the east.

Along the way, numerous protesters seeking to reach the torch were wrestled to the ground by police officers. One man carrying a fire extinguisher narrowly failed to reach the person carrying the torch, but set off the extinguisher anyway, dousing police officers with foam.

The torch’s London relay was the fourth stop of a global itinerary that began last month in Greece, where pro-Tibetan demonstrators briefly interrupted the torch’s lighting and its subsequent progress through Athens.

Tibetan organizations have said they plan protests at every stop on the torch’s 21-nation tour. The flame moves to San Francisco on Wednesday, its only U.S. stop. The monthlong tour is scheduled to end in Vietnam; it is to be followed by a six-week, 46-stop tour of China.

In London, more than 2,000 police officers were deployed; the security cordon around the torch was so dense that the flame and those carrying it were often barely visible to crowds.

Caught in the middle are foreign governments. Both Britain and France sought to protect delicate trade and diplomatic relations with China while supporting the Games and yet to also placate those who oppose holding the Olympics in a country with a harsh record for punishing dissent.

The centerpiece of the torch parade Sunday was 10 Downing Street, where the Chinese contingent was greeted by Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

Brown, like President George W. Bush, has said he plans to attend the Games’ opening ceremonies in Beijing in August. The French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, has hinted he may not attend if China’s recent crackdown on Tibetans does not relent.

Under pressure from human rights groups in Britain, Brown has voiced sympathy for the Tibetan protests. He has also said that he will meet the Dalai Lama in Britain next month.

John F. Burns contributed from London and Jim Yardley from Beijing.