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Tibet protests force organisers to snuff out Olympic flame in Paris

April 8, 2008

Times Online
April 7, 2008
Charles Bremner in Paris, and Alexi Mostrous

The Olympic torch was extinguished in Paris today as human rights
protesters overpowered police and brought chaos to the flame's relay
through the French capital.

On two occasions officials were forced to put out the torch, after
police scuffled with campaigners protesting against China's crackdown in
Tibet. At least ten people were arrested.

The flame began its journey from the Eiffel Tower, with Stephane
Diagana, the former world 400 metres hurdles champion, leading the first
of 80 torchbearers along its 18-mile journey through the streets to the
Charlety stadium.

But the relay had barely progressed more than 200 yards before the torch
was placed aboard a bus to protect it from the crowds. It was then twice
extinguished for "technical reasons", a police source said.

Protesters waving Tibetan flags overpowered the strong police presence
as the procession moved down the Seine. Many broke through the
barricades and lay on the ground in front of the relay.

Many celebrities joined in the protest, including Jane Birkin, the
English actress and human rights campaigner. A member of the French
Greens party said she had been restrained for two hours by police for
trying to grab the torch from Diagana.

The protests have delayed the torch's procession by more than two hours,
fuelling speculation that the route could be cut short.

Onlookers described the frustration of the athletes selected to take
part in the relay. One described how David Douillet, a recent judo gold
medallist and world champion, was "pacing up and down in frustration"
outside a television station waiting for his turn to carry the torch.

Activists carrying Tibetan flags were asked to either put them away or
leave the area, although those carrying French and Chinese flags were
allowed to stay. A policeman at Quai Branly ripped a flag bearing the
slogan of the Reporters Without Borders (RSF) group from the hands of a
Vietnamese protester.

More than 3,000 police had been deployed across central Paris for the
event, a phalanx of motorcycle police, jogging firemen, police on roller
blades and dozens of riot police vehicles.

But despite the heavy security in London and Paris, the torch's
85,000-mile journey from Greece to Beijing has become a stage for
activists decrying China's recent crackdown on Tibetans and its support
for Sudan despite civilian deaths in Darfur.

Yesterday in London, demonstrators grabbed at the Olympic torch and
tried to snuff it out and the procession was marred by ugly clashes
between police and activists.

French authorities have urged demonstrators to remain peaceful but they
have not discouraged people from protesting. Public opinion in France is
highly critical of the Beijing government over its recent crackdown in
Tibet and its repressive measures against dissenters.

Many of the 80 official torch bearers are wearing a badge reading "For a
better world". The badge, which carries the Olympic rings, was devised
on Friday by the athletes' commission of the French Olympic committee as
a way of indicating concern over rights in China without breaching rules.

Bertrand Delanoe, the socialist Mayor of Paris, has draped a banner
across the front of the City Hall that reads: "Paris supports human
rights everywhere in the world".

Bernard Kouchner, the Foreign Minister and a lifelong rights campaigner,
said he expected demonstrations. "I would like people to be informed.
For that to happen, we need to know better what is happening in Tibet,"
he said.

Leftwing emotion over the games was reflected in the front page of
Lib?ration newspaper. "Free the Olympics", read the headline over a
picture showing handcuffs replacing the Olympic rings.

Concern over Tibet and China's handling of the games has led President
Sarkozy to threaten to stay away from the opening ceremony in Beijing in
August.

Opinion polls show about 60 per cent of the French favouring a boycott
of the opening ceremony, but no-one is suggesting that athletes stay
away from the games.

The consensus across party lines and in the media holds that the IOC
made a mistake in awarding the games to Beijing, but that protests now
will have little impact.

Support for the Beijing games came today from Jean-Claude Killy, a
former skiing medallist and member of the IOC. "The courage of the
Olympic movement in awarding the games to China is a blessing,
especially for the Tibetans. They are benefiting from spectacular media
cover," he said in Le Figaro.
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