updated 7/6/2010 7:04:14 PM ET 2010-07-06T23:04:14

Spain shrugged off its economic woes Tuesday, with tens of thousands of Spaniards and foreigners jamming a historic city plaza and spraying each other with wine to launch the famed San Fermin bull-running festival.

The nine-day street drinking party got under way at midday with the traditional shout from the city hall balcony of “Viva San Fermin!,” followed seconds later by the firing of the firecracker known as the chupinazo. On Wednesday, daredevils will race just ahead of huge bulls running along Pamplona’s cobblestoned streets, and gorings are virtually assured.

The rocket was the signal to the revelers to erupt into the party mode that dominates Spain through August. Crowds dressed in the festival’s traditional white shirts and pants with red sashes sang and whooped while drenching each other with sangria, cheap wine and champagne.

Though the tourist count is down in Pamplona this year and merchants are complaining of low sales as Spain struggles with the European debt crisis and 20 percent unemployment, David Marcilla said he didn’t care after a woman dumped a huge bucket of water on top of him from her terrace in a third-floor apartment.

“There’s a crisis in Spain, but there isn’t today in Pamplona and everyone is partying,” said Marcilla, 16, his white shirt already stained pink by wine.

John Lawlor, 25, was trying to decide which day he would pick to run in front of the bulls for his first time, but insisted his dash would be short.

“I have a bladder condition,” the British college student joked as he swilled from yet another can of beer. “Have to stop frequently.”

The party’s start was marred when Basque separatists prohibited from displaying their flag on a huge stage raised one into the air from the crowd and unfurled a banner demanding that terrorists convicted of bombings and killings be moved to prisons closer to their relatives.

The event witnessed by an AP photographer prompted police officers to move into the sea of people packing the plaza, swinging their batons. Fistfights also broke out between supporters of the ETA Basque separatist group and Spaniards opposed to the Basque independence movement.

Some in the crowd responded by hurling bottles of beer and champagne at officers, and police beat people in the crowd, according to witnesses and photos by news photographers that showed the clashes.

“The pushing escalated and the cops started coming in and beating people with batons,” said Damien Woodfull, a 20-year-old Canadian university student from Windsor, Ontario.

New Zealand dairy farmer Helen Campbell, 23, said she was hit by a bottle in the head as riot police pulled people from the crowd, but she was uninjured.

An Associated Press reporter saw officers removing the Basque flag from the plaza, and four carried out one man who appeared to be injured or unconscious.

Police at the scene declined comment, and Pamplona police spokesman Antonio Iberni said he was unaware of any disturbances or injuries. He added that if people had attempted to raise a banner in support of ETA prisoners, officers would have waded in to remove it.

But the party resumed quickly after the melee, with television images showing masses of red and white dressed partiers swaying back and forth in the square and roaring “San Fermin!” and “Ole!” as the rocket blasted off.

“There’s so much wine on the ground you could get drunk by drinking it off the floor,” said Samantha Arnold, a 25-year-old pharmaceutical saleswoman from Australia.

In an almost laughable bid to try to keep the noise level down during the fiesta known for 24-hour street partying, Pamplona town hall on Monday banned street vendor sales of vuvuzelas, the droning plastic horns so popular at World Cup matches in South Africa.

San Fermin’s first bull-run starts at 8 a.m. (0600 GMT) Wednesday, when hundreds of people race ahead of six fighting bulls and six bell-tinkling steers — meant to keep them in a tight pack — that charge down the 930-yard (850-meter) course from a holding pen to the northern town’s bull ring.

In the evening, the bulls will be killed in the bull ring, and their meat gets served up in Pamplona’s restaurants.

Dozens of people are injured each year in the morning runs. Most get hurt after falling, but some are gored and trampled by the beasts.

Last year’s festival saw the first goring death in nearly 15 years.

The fiesta became a big international event after Ernest Hemingway wrote about it in his 1926 novel, “The Sun Also Rises.”

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Photos: Pamplona Celebrates

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  1. Participants fall to the ground during the last day of running of the bulls at the San Fermin Festival in Pamplona, Spain, on Wednesday, July 14. (Pedro Armestre / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Two fighting bulls from the Jandilla ranch slip as the herd turns into a sharp corner in the old city of Pamplona on July 14. (Jim Hollander / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. A "Kiliki" rests before dancing on the last day of the San Fermin festival's "Comparsa de gigantes y cabezudos" (Parade of the giants and the big heads) in Pamplona, on July 14. Enormous puppets accompanied by brass bands parade daily through the city during the nine-day-long festival made popular by U.S. writer Ernest Hemingway. (Susana Vera / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. A couple sits on a bench bathed in light filtered through trees in Pamplona, early July 13. (Vincent West / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Spanish bullfighter Juan Jose Padilla is gored by a fighting bull weighing nearly 1,300 pounds during the San Fermin festival in Pamplona on July 11. Padilla hung onto the bull's horns and then was flipped and pinned on the sand before being able to roll free. He was assessed by medical staff, then returned to kill the bull. (Jesus Diges / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Participants run in front of a fighting bull as it enters the Plaza de Torros bull ring in Pamplona on July 11. (Pedro Armestre / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. A couple kiss during the San Fermin fiestas early on July 9 in Pamplona. (Ivan Aguinaga / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. A runner is knocked down by a Cebada Gago fighting bull at Estafeta Corner during the second running of the bulls on the third day of the San Fermin festival in Pamplona on July 8. The Spanish runner was among six people who were hospitalized following a run that lasted 3 minutes and 30 seconds, according to local news sources. (Eloy Alonso / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Spanish Matador Francisco Marco is gored by a Cebada Gago'ss bull at Pamplona's bullring on July 8. (Ander Gillenea / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. A fighting cow leaps over revelers during festivities in the bullring after the second running of the bulls on July 8. Six people were hospitalized, after two were gored following the run. (Joseba Etxaburu / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A participant falls while others run in front of Cebada Gago´s fighting bulls during the second running of the bulls on July 8. (Pedro Armestre / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Revelers sleep in a park before the start of the second bull run. (Alvaro Barrientos / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Revelers walk amid trash strewn about Plaza del Castillo after a night of partying during the San Fermin fiestas on July 8. (Alvaro Barrientos / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. A matador's assistant administers the 'coup de grace' or 'blow of mercy,' killing the bull during the first bullfight of the San Fermin fiestas on July 7. (Victor R. Caivano / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. A bullfighter's assistant places a pair of 'banderillas,' or wooden sticks, in front of a charging bull of the Penajara ranch in Pamplona, during the first bullfight on July 7. (Victor R. Caivano / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. A reveler is tossed by a fighting cow during festivities in the bull ring after the first running of the bulls on the second day of the San Fermin festival in Pamplona on July 7. Several runners were knocked to the ground and some were trampled by the animals but no one was gored and there were no life-threatening injuries. (Joseba Etxaburu / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. A fighting cow leaps over revelers during festivities in the bull ring after the first running of the bulls at the San Fermin festival in Pamplona on July 7. (Joseba Etxaburu / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Revelers are stepped over by fighting bulls during the San Fermin festival on July 7. (Ana Castro / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. A man gets medical care after being gored by a fighting bulls on the first San Fermin Festival bull run, on July. (Pedro Armestre / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Participants wait for fighting bulls on the first San Fermin Festival bull run in Pamplona on July 7. (Ander Gillenea / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. People watch from balconies over Estafeta street in Pamplona for the running of the bulls during the San Fermin fiestas on July 7. (Victor R. Caivano / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Revelers crowd the streets during the start of the San Fermin Festival in Pamplona on July 6. (Susana Vera / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Revelers are soaked with water thrown from a balcony at the start of the San Fermin Festival in Pamplona on July 6. (Joseba Etxaburu / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Revelers hold up traditional red neckties during the 'Chupinazo,' the official opening of the San Fermin fiestas in Pamplona, on July 6. (Alvaro Barrientos / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Revelers hold up traditional red neckties during the 'Chupinazo." (Victor R. Caivano / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. A reveler drinks out of a wine skin during the start of the San Fermin Festival in Pamplona on July 6. (Eloy Alonso / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. Revelers throw a woman into the air during the 'Chupinazo', the official opening of the San Fermin fiestas in Pamplona, on July 6. (Alvaro Barrientos / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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