CANBERRA, Australia – Runners carried the Olympic torch unimpeded through Australia's capital Thursday cheered by thousands waving Chinese flags, but critics of China protested nearby and a skywriting airplane wrote "Free Tibet" overhead.
Australian organizers claimed victory because they largely avoided the chaotic scenes that marred relay portions held in Europe and the United States, which prompted Olympic officials to reconsider holding the event in future. Seven people were arrested.
Some pro-Tibet demonstrators said they were heckled and harassed by some China supporters who vastly outnumbered them, and police at least once had to break up angry scenes between the two sides.
Protests over China's human rights record and its crackdown last month on anti-government activists in Tibet have turned the relay into a contentious issue for the Olympic movement. Many countries have changed routes and boosted security along the flame's six-continent journey to the Aug. 8-24 games in Beijing.
The Australia leg began without major incident as a half-dozen officers in jogging pants, T-shirts and baseball caps formed a loose cordon around the runner while other police manned crowd-control barriers.
Overhead, an airplane skywriter wrote "Free Tibet" in white letters.
About an hour into the relay, a man leaped out from the crowd and sat cross-legged about 35 feet in front of the runner. Police quickly hauled him away and the runner didn't stop.
It was the closest any protester came to the torch during its three-hour journey as 80 runners carried it for 10 miles through Canberra's tree-lined boulevards.
Away from the route, three Tibetan women blocked the street in front of Parliament. Police also took them away. Another protester shouted "stop killing in Tibet," and he was led off.
People carrying Chinese flags strongly outnumbered those carrying Tibetan flags or placards criticizing Beijing's human rights record. At some places, chanting of "One China" broke out. Along the route, eager supporters waving Chinese banners tried to keep up with the relay.
At one point, three protesters jumped crowd-control barricades and walked along the route waving "Free Tibet" signs, and were chased by a larger group carrying Chinese flags that tried to cover up the signs with the flags.
"They mobbed the sign. They were really aggressive, insulting and swearing," said Marion Vecourcay, one of the activists. "It was just a mob mentality."
Shortly before the start of the relay, television footage showed dozens of China supporters facing off against a group carrying blue-colored flags representing the China's Muslim minority Uighurs. Minor scuffling broke out as officials sought to separate the groups. Soon afterward, Tibetan activists set alight a Chinese flag.
Seven people in total were arrested, and they would likely face charges of causing a public disturbance, police spokeswoman Laura Keating said.
"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," Ted Quinlan, the chief organizer of the Australia relay, told the Australian Broadcasting Corp.
Pro-Tibet protester Thanh Tan Huynh charged that his side was so outnumbered by Chinese supporters because government officials had paid travel and meal expenses for ethnic Chinese to travel to Canberra from other cities. Embassy officials did not immediately respond to the claim.
Australian Federation of Chinese Organizations representative David Zhang said his Sydney-based nongovernment organization had arranged buses for 5,000 students, but that all passengers had paid their own way.
"Australia's flag was relegated to the background as Canberra was subject to Beijing overkill," Sen. Bob Brown, leader of the minority Greens Party and the organizer of the skywriting plane, said in a statement.
Local government spokesman Jeremy Lasek told Sky News television that organizers "feared the worst having seen incidents in the other cities around the world.
"We feel right now relieved but elated — we think we've pulled it off," he said.
The torch is now due to head to Nagano, Japan, where a historic Buddhist temple has backed out of plans to host the flame Sunday due to security concerns and unease among its monks about China's treatment of Buddhists in Tibet.
The torch will then go to South Korea before finally reaching China for a multi-location tour that includes controversial plans to take it up the Chinese side of Mount Everest.