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Torch relay confined to Jakarta stadium

Police detained at least eight people and seized flags from pro-Tibet activists Tuesday during a rowdy demonstration against the Olympic torch relay in Indonesia.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Torchbearers ran laps with the Olympic flame in front of an invitation-only crowd Tuesday after officials changed the relay route from Jakarta’s streets to a sports stadium amid pressure from China to keep away demonstrators.

Police arrested several protesters rallying nearby and seized Tibetan flags and banners in the latest actions against a global relay that Beijing had hoped would promote the Aug. 8-24 Olympics.

Criticism of China’s human rights record has turned the relay into one of the most contentious in recent history. Anti-Chinese protests have dogged stops in Greece, Paris, London and San Francisco.

Countries have responded by sharply modifying routes and boosting security. Indonesia deployed water cannons and 3,000 police officers in the capital.

The staged event in Jakarta was not televised live, apparently because no broadcaster was prepared to pay for the rights.

The 5,000 people who gathered at the Bung Karno Stadium to welcome the Olympic flame under dark, rainy skies were mostly government officials, flag-waving Chinese nationals working in the city, students, and people invited by corporate sponsors.

“I am excited to witness history,” said Andrea Putri, 15. “This kind of thing does not happen every day.”

A handful of others were turned away from the stadium grounds, and the event was mostly ignored in the city of 12 million. The Olympics are not very popular in Indonesia, the only country where the 2004 Athens Games were not televised.

Hours before the torch arrived, about 100 demonstrators held a rally and police briefly detained several of them, including a Dutch national identified as Stef Bolte.

“I am completely peaceful,” he told The Associated Press as he was escorted away by officers. “I am protesting human rights violations in Tibet.”

The Chinese Embassy had requested the event be low-key, and authorities complied. They shortened the route, originally planned to wind through Jakarta, and hand-picked the spectators.

Jakarta’s governor was the first of 80 torchbearers, who circled the stadium five times.

The relay’s next leg is Thursday in Australia, where the flame arrived early Wednesday in the capital of Canberra amid tight security. The arrival was greeted by Aboriginal music and it was handed to an indigenous leader.

“I welcome the Olympic torch to Australia in the spirit of peace on behalf of my people whose history in this place goes back to the beginning of time,” Agnes Shea, an Ngunnawal elder, said in a speech.

Australian organizers expect at least 2,000 protesters during the relay from both sides. A few protesters were arrested Tuesday on the Sydney Harbour Bridge, where they had been trying unfurl a large pro-Tibet banner, Sky News reported.

An Australian social justice advocate who was chosen to carry the torch said she was pulling out because of concerns over China’s human rights record. Lin Hatfield-Dodds said she supports the Olympics and the athletes, but the symbolism of the relay had changed in the wake of China’s crackdown in Tibet.

“For a lot of people, it still carries the meaning of harmony, but for an increasing number of the global community watching, it’s carrying a lot of meaning around human rights,” Hatfield-Dodds told Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio.

Problems also have cropped up for Saturday’s relay in Nagano, Japan — the host of the 1998 Winter Games.

It was supposed to begin at the 1,400-year-old Zenkoji Buddhist temple, but officials there have changed their minds, citing security concerns and unease among its monks and supporters over China’s treatment of Buddhists in Tibet. Instead, the relay will begin in a parking lot.

The temple also said it will co-host a prayer ritual for Tibet on the morning of the relay.

Several thousand police will be mobilized to secure the relay. Japan has refused entry to a Chinese security squad that has followed the flame elsewhere.

After Nagano, the torch goes on to Seoul, where two South Koreans slated to run in the torch relay on Sunday said they would boycott the event, also to protest the Tibet crackdown.