Pamplona kicks off bull-running festival

PAMPLONA, Spain — 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 as a firecracker rocket blasted off 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. Today, 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 said jokingly 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.

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.

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