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Australian torch relay ends with minor skirmishes

  • Story Highlights
  • NEW: Olympic swimmer Ian Thorpe ends relay in Canberra
  • Route went past Parliament House and within yards of Chinese Embassy
  • Two people arrested for trying to unfurl banner on Sydney Harbour Bridge
  • Four held for hanging banner on street sign; man arrested after scuffle
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CANBERRA, Australia (CNN) -- Australian swimmer Ian Thorpe ended the Australian leg of the Olympic torch relay Thursday, touching the flame to light a cauldron after a run that was only slightly affected by anti-China protests.

At least five people were arrested during the torch relay that ended up more orderly than those in other countries but still heavy with people demonstrating both for and against China, which will host the 2008 Olympics in Beijing in August.

Police said the five were arrested for interfering with the event under special powers enacted in the wake of massive protests against Chinese policy toward Tibet.

The first scuffle took place at Reconciliation Place, where the relay began shortly before 9 a.m. local time (2300 GMT Wednesday). The incident took place shortly before the relay was to begin, prefaced by a ceremony of cleansing and dancing conducted by Aboriginal Australians. Video Watch a protester attempt to disrupt the relay »

In all, 80 runners carried the torch through Canberra along with five-time Olympic gold medalist swimmer Thorpe.

All along the route, and in a large crowd at the cauldron lighting, red Chinese national flags vastly outnumbered Australian flags or banners from any other nation along the route. Video Watch torch bearers proceed along the relay route »

Many in attendance appeared to be Chinese students studying abroad in Australia.

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International demonstrators had vowed to show up 500-strong for the torch relay to protest China's policy toward Tibet, which has long petitioned for more democratic rights and freedoms, and China's human rights record.

Australian police countered armed with special powers -- enacted for the relay -- to stop and search them.

Police reported some minor skirmishes between supporters of China and pro-Tibet demonstrators near where the run began, but no arrests were made. About 30 minutes into the run, a man ran into the street directly in front of the torchbearer but was immediately pushed away by security and apprehended by police

Shortly before the flame arrived in Canberra, police arrested a man and a woman who were trying to unfurl a banner on Sydney's Harbour Bridge.

The relay route, already truncated from 20 km (12 miles) to 16 km (10 miles), was to thread past the Parliament House and within yards of the Chinese Embassy.

Police put up meter-high fences along the route to keep the 80 torch runners safe from protesters. About 350 police officers have been preparing for weeks, armed with special powers to stop and search people for prohibited items, from guns to eggs.

"We're quite optimistic, having talked to all the parties involved, that it's going to be peaceful," said a spokesman for the Australian Federal Police. "But we're obviously prepared in the event that it gets out of hand."

Police described most of the day's skirmishes as minor, saying security and law enforcement officers were able to break up disturbances before they became violent.

Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd had requested that the number of Chinese "flame attendants" be limited during the run. The attendants, whose job is to ensure that the torch is not improperly extinguished, were accused of being too aggressive during protest-marred stops in other countries.

Only two of the attendants were visible as the run began.

Paul Bourke of the Australian Tibet Council said he expected about 500 supporters to descend on Canberra on Thursday to protest peacefully. Thousands of Chinese students were also expected at the relay.

Early Wednesday morning, members of the Tibet Council used lasers to spell out statements on the pylon wall of the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

The statements -- "Don't torch Tibet" and "China, Talk to the Dalai Lama" -- were beamed on to the bridge wall about 1 a.m. after the floodlights had been turned off, Bourke said. They protested a plan to carry the torch through Tibet and China's refusal to negotiate with the Tibetan spiritual leader.

"We believe it would be unnecessarily provocative to run the torch relay through the Tibetan areas," Bourke said.

He added that the International Olympic Committee, in awarding the Olympic Games to China, said it would be a force for good in the country. But it hasn't happened, Bourke said. Watch a timeline of the Olympics and politics »

"There's still four months left for China to honor its commitment to rest of the world, and it can do so by negotiating with the Dalai Lama to work toward a lasting solution to the Tibet issue," he said.

Several hours later, a man and a woman were arrested as they tried to unfurl a banner on the Harbour Bridge. Walsh, the police spokeswoman, would not confirm local reports that the pair was trying to unveil a Tibetan flag.

Police cited the two protesters for violating a law that requires a permit for any displays from the bridge.

Three men and a woman were also arrested for hanging a banner from a street sign at King's Cross, Walsh said.

Security concerns prompted Pakistani officials to close the relay to the public and hold it at a stadium in front of invited guests. India truncated the route and kept protesters at bay by lining the route with thousands of police officers and paramilitary troopers. Follow a map of the international torch relay »

But stops in some countries, such as Argentina, Tanzania and Oman, have been trouble-free.

The flame arrived in Australia from a relatively incident-free jaunt through Jakarta, Indonesia.


On Tuesday, torchbearers circled a track around Jakarta's main sports stadium in front of invited guests and journalists in a relay that was shortened to just over 4 miles (7 km). Video Watch the torch being lit in Jakarta »

Indonesian police arrested six pro-Tibet protesters and took down anti-Chinese banners and signs outside the sports complex, according to a protest organizer. Police said they were charged with not having a permit to stage a protest. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

CNN's Saeed Ahmed, Dan Rivers and Kathy Quiano contributed to this report.

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