Olympic torch hidden, route changed to thwart protestors

Other News Materials 10 April 2008 03:05 (UTC +04:00)

The symbolic Olympic torch was lit Wednesday in San Francisco in a bizarre event that saw it taken into hiding in a warehouse and among a convoy of buses and amphibious vehicles. ( dpa )

The efforts were a bid to thwart thousands of protestors lining the expected route along the San Francisco waterfront.

The flame eventually appeared about an hour later in the hands of two runners, far from the original route and surrounded by a cordon of police on motorbikes and Chinese security officers.

The torch relay was preceded by minor skirmishes as Beijing supporters waving huge red flags confronted demonstrators protesting Chinese policies.

"Liars, liars, liars," shouted hundreds of ethnic Chinese at protestors who held a Tibetan flag and signs saying "Save Darfur." Elsewhere, people draped in Tibetan flags lay in the streets in an attempt to disrupt the torch relay.

Police were out in force to keep the opposing groups apart, and there were no immediate reports of arrests as thousands of demonstrators gathered along the San Francisco's famous waterfront to cheer or jeer the passage of the Olympic flame.

Many of the protestors condemned Beijing's policies in Tibet and curtailment of freedom of speech in China, but there was also a group of nudists calling for a return to the way the ancient Greek games were played.

Officials in the famously progressive city were anxious to avoid the scenes of mayhem that dogged the torch's passage through Paris and London, conferring with French and British authorities to devise a strategy.

Adding to the volatile mix is San Francisco's large Chinese emigre community, many of whom see China's hosting of the Olympic Games as a source of national pride.

"This has been a dream for China to show the world what kind of progress we have made," said Han Moy, who was born in China but has lived in the United States for 50 years.

"We are trying to accomplish two goals here. One is to protect the right to free speech, and the other is to ensure public safety, and here in San Francisco we are good at both of those things," said Nathan Ballard, a spokesman for Mayor Gavin Newsom.

At the same authorities were preparing for the worst.

Ambulances were stationed at strategic points along the planned thoroughfare, where police teams placed barriers to control crowds and secure the torch route.

Police Chief Heather Fong said that officers, including some who will run with torchbearers, have watched events unfold in Europe and were adjusting their strategies.

"What is most important is, at the end of the day the people are peaceful and safe, and it's a successful situation," Fong said. "If there's violence and people get hurt, then it hurts every opinion that is out there."

Most protesters have pledged to act peacefully and not attempt to disrupt the passage of the torch as happened in London and Paris. The tone was set early Wednesday, when groups of Tibetan monks marched across the Golden Gate Bridge.

On Tuesday night, actor Richard Gere and Nobel peace laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu led a peaceful human-rights vigil, after other demonstrators lit what they called the Tibetan Freedom Torch.

"It is fantastic what people have been doing," Tutu told reporters at the Candle Lights for Human Rights vigil at San Francisco's United Nations Plaza.

The scenes of mayhem prompted speculation that future legs of the global torch tour would be cancelled to avoid further anti-China protests. Members of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) said Wednesday that they have ruled out cutting short the protest-plagued international portion of the Olympic torch relay.

Mario Vazquez Rana, president of the Association of National Olympic Committees, said after sharing dinner Tuesday night with Rogge that the IOC president was "100-per-cent convinced" not to make any changes to the international relay.

IOC vice-president Thomas Bach said he expected "that it will continue," and Swedish executive board member Gunilla Lindbergh also shared this view.

"My opinion is that we have to do exactly what we planned," she told Deutsche Presse-Agentur dpa. "The torch has to complete its international trip."