Olympic torch hidden, route changed to thwart protestors

April 10th, 2008 - 10:57 am ICT by admin  

San Francisco, April 10 (DPA) The symbolic Olympic flame was lit Wednesday in San Francisco, starting a game of cat and mouse that saw the torch hidden in a warehouse, secreted in a convoy of buses and amphibious vehicles and carried by runners far from its original route. The torch was then reloaded onto the convoy as officials cancelled the official closing ceremony for the only North American stop on the global relay. The ceremony was replaced by another event at an undisclosed location, later revealed to be at San Francisco Airport.

Local TV station KNBC said that the diversionary tactics were worked out by federal officials in close cooperation with the Chinese government.

The efforts were a bid to thwart thousands of protestors lining the expected route along the San Francisco waterfront. But as the procession continued, protestors shifted positions and began lining the new route. But the tactic seemed to be working as the torch’s journey was uninterrupted, as the violent protests that marked the flame’s passages through London and Paris were not repeated.

The switch was condemned by many in the crowd who had waited for hours to cheer or jeer the torch. Political opponents of Mayor Gavin Newsom also blasted the changes.

“Gavin Newsom misled supporters and opponents of the run. People brought their families and their children,” said Board of Supervisors President Aaron Peskin. “He did it so China can report they had a great torch run. It’s the worst kind of government - government by deceit and misinformation.”

Mary Brigham voiced “a lot of frustration” after waiting for four hours along the parade route.

“They fooled us by announcing the original route,” she said. “We’ve been walking miles and miles to see the torch, but we don’t know where it is.”

Officials decided on the drastic changes to the route of the torch after thousands of protestors lined the original route and blocking some points, according to police. Minor skirmishes broke out throughout the morning as pro-Beijing supporters waving huge red flags confronted demonstrators protesting China’s 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.

Many protestors condemned Beijing’s policies in Tibet and curtailment of free speech in China. 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 was San Francisco’s large Chinese emigre community, many of whom see China’s hosting of the Olympic Games as a source of ethnic 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 US for 50 years.

Nathan Ballard, a spokesman for Mayor Gavin Newsom, said: “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.”

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. Officials also announced that they would cut the planned 10-km route in half and double-team the runners.

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 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.

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 tour of the Olympic flame.

Mario Vazquez Rana, president of the Association of National Olympic Committees, said Tuesday night that IOC President Jacques Rogge was “100-percent 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 DPA. “The torch has to complete its international trip.”

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