The global torch relay has been dogged by protests from human rights campaigners and pro-Tibet groups angry at China‘s recent crackdown on unrest in the Himalayan region.
On Thursday however, the most noticeable focus of dispute came not from protesters but rather Chinese and Australian security officials over who should be in charge of security.
A day earlier Australian and Chinese officials openly disagreed over the role of the Chinese torch escorts, described by a top British Olympic official as “thugs” for their actions during the London leg of the relay earlier this month.
For the Canberra relay only three Chinese officials were allowed near the flame, but Australian police insisted they had no security role and had earlier warned they would be arrested if they touched anti-China protesters during the relay.
During the run itself, one protester leaped into the path of the flame but was quickly dragged off by police.
Other protests took place away from the torch, including one incident where three Tibetan women lay down in the path of a convoy of vehicles at Parliament House.
|Chinese supporters far outnumbered
pro-Tibet protesters [EPA]
An aircraft also wrote “Free Tibet” with smoke in the sky above the relay route.
Police detained at least six people at isolated demonstrations.
Ahead of Thursday’s run, police had erected steel metre-high crowd-control barriers along the route of the relay which was shortened from its original length for security reasons.
Police officers in running pants, T-shirts and baseball-style caps formed a loose cordon around each runner, promising that nothing would stop the torch from completing its trip through the capital.
Australian officials said security to guard the 80 torchbearers for the three-hour relay had been boosted in recent days, doubling the original police budget for the event.
But security was far lower than in India and Indonesia which had both deployed thousands of police to guard the flame.
Security officials had feared clashes between pro-China and pro-Tibet groups during the Canberra relay and police repeatedly warned the two groups to keep to their own sides after some carrying Chinese flags tried to surround a Tibetan group.
Pro-Tibet groups estimated about 500 supporters gathered in Canberra for peaceful protests.
In response, Chinese student groups had organised bus trips from Sydney and other Australian cities for those wanting to support the relay.
One group, the Australia China Association, estimated that 10,000 supporters had travelled to Canberra for the event.
Ted Quinlan, Canberra‘s Olympic relay committee chairman, said the large presence of pro-China visitors was well organised.
“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.