Heavy Security Marks Japanese Leg of Olympic Torch Relay, Thousands Demonstrate

Heavy security and a large contingent of pro-Chinese supporters thwarted protesters who tried to disrupt the Japanese leg of the Olympic torch relay Saturday.

Athens marathon gold medalist Mizuki Noguchi ran the final leg of the relay, which saw only minor scuffles along the 11.6-mile route through the city that hosted the 1998 Winter Olympics.

Police guards in track suits surrounded the torch bearers and another 100 uniformed riot police ran alongside six patrol cars and two motorcycles. They were backed up by thousands of other police.

At the end of the relay at a Nagano park, Noguchi was greeted by a throng of Chinese supporters, far outnumbering the pro-Tibet demonstrators who were ushered to a hillside away from the celebrations.

"I'm so glad that I could safely light up the cauldron," said Noguchi. "I ran as I wished for the success of the Beijing Olympics and peace."

China's supporters waved Chinese flags and wore T-shirts that read "Welcome to Beijing." About 2,000 Chinese exchange students swarmed Nagano to show their support.

Minor scuffling and protests broke out during the relay, but the event went ahead without any major interruptions.

Five men — four Japanese and a pro-Tibetan resident of Taiwan — were arrested.

Three men were apprehended after trying to charge the torch, the fourth threw eggs and the fifth hurled tomatoes at the flame.

All were quickly pounced on by police, police official Akiko Fuseya said.

National broadcaster NHK reported a smoke-emitting tube was thrown at the relay, but that didn't affect it.

Marchers yelling "Free Tibet" crowded the streets near the route. And four people were slightly injured in different scuffles, fire officials said.

The starting point — a last-minute substitution after a Buddhist temple pulled out — was closed to the public, as were all rest stops along the way.

The relay, making its 16th international stop, has been disrupted by protests or conducted under extremely heavy security at many sites since it left Greece.

The protests are largely in response to China's crackdown last month on protests in Tibet, which it has governed since the 1950s, and to concerns over human rights issues in China.

Many of China's supporters in Japan said the protesters didn't understand the issues.

"You can't solve the Tibet issue right away," said Ji Aye, a Chinese student in Japan. "A lot of these demonstrators have never been to Tibet or China and don't understand the issue. I'm sad they are doing this to our Games."

The international route ends next week, with stops in South Korea on Sunday, North Korea on Monday and Vietnam on Tuesday. The flame arrives on Chinese soil on April 30 in Hong Kong, for a long journey around the country before the Aug. 8 start of the games.

Coinciding with the start of the relay, which began under a light rain, a prayer vigil was held at the largest Buddhist temple in Nagano, Zenkoji.

The 1,400-year-old temple, which was the showcase of the 1998 Olympics, last week declined to host the start of the relay, citing security concerns and sympathy among monks and worshippers for their religious brethren in Tibet.

After arriving in Nagano by bus early Friday, the flame was spirited away to a hotel and put under heavy security. About 3,000 police were mobilized.