April 9, 2008 / 2:31 AM / in 10 years

Tensions high ahead of U.S. Olympic torch run

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Thousands of protesters and counter-protesters gathered in San Francisco on Wednesday before the Olympic torch — magnet for demonstrations against China policies — began its only relay in the United States.

A man carries a Tibetan flag past demonstrators with Chinese flags before the start of the Olympic Torch relay in San Francisco, California April 9, 2008. REUTERS/Robert Galbraith

There were some tense confrontations and at least one pro-Tibetan demonstrator was arrested.

The torch relays in London and Paris over the past week have been dogged by protests, particularly against China’s crackdown last month on unrest in Tibet.

But Olympics chief Jacques Rogge said there were no plans to cut short a global relay ahead of the August Olympic Games in Beijing.

San Francisco sought to head off trouble. Hundreds of security officers including agents from the FBI were deployed.

Police warned ahead of the 1 p.m. (9:00 p.m. British time) scheduled start of the torch relay run that anyone crossing police barricades along the route would be subject to arrest.

Reflecting divided feelings in the city — a fifth of whose population is of Chinese origin — thousands of pro-China spectators gathered at the start of the route, many flying the five-star Communist Chinese flag.

Many Chinese-Americans in San Francisco are proud their ancestral home is hosting the global sporting event and resent the protests.

In front of the city’s ferry building, Christine Lias, 30, was quickly surrounded by more than 30 Chinese-Americans after she said “Free Tibet now!”

“Liar, liar, shame on you,” many in the group shouted at the lone woman.

“In 5,000 years of Olympic history the Chinese can finally have one time hosting the Olympics. It means that China is becoming a world power,” said Don Zheng, 41, a Chinese-American computer engineer who emigrated in 1988.

SECURITY AROUND THE CITY

Authorities in the city stepped up patrols on the Golden Gate Bridge after three protesters scaled its cables on Monday to hang pro-Tibet banners.

A pro-Tibet demonstrator shouts into a megaphone before the beginning of the Olympic torch relay in San Francisco, California April 9, 2008. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni

Coast Guard boats patrolled the waterfront.

The torch relays have kept Tibet in the headlines, and attracted other groups unhappy about a range of China-related issues, including its human rights record and policies on Sudan’s Darfur region. Critics say China should use more of its clout with Sudan to ease the bloody conflict in Darfur.

Beijing, which has long hoped that hosting the Olympic Games will highlight its position on the world stage, has fiercely condemned the torch protests.

China blames Tibet’s spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, and his associates for orchestrating monk-led protests in Tibet last month as part of a campaign for independence. The Dalai Lama denies this.

Hours before the San Francisco torch relay, President George W. Bush urged China to open a dialogue with the Dalai Lama. He said he agreed at a meeting with Singapore Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong “that it would stand the Chinese government in good stead if they would begin a dialogue with the representatives of the Dalai Lama.”

‘BEAUTIFUL SYMBOL’

Olympics chief Rogge told the Wall Street Journal that reports that the International Olympic Committee executive board would consider scrapping the torch relay outside China, to avoid more ugly scenes, were “based on a misunderstanding.”

Slideshow (13 Images)

“I am saddened that such a beautiful symbol of the torch, which unites people of different religions, different ethnic origin, different political systems, cultures and languages, has been attacked,” Rogge said of the disruptions.

Rogge met Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao for about an hour on Wednesday. “It was a good meeting where a range of Games topics were discussed between both parties,” said an IOC statement.

Wen told Rogge the Olympic flame was a symbol of “peace, friendship, advancement and brightness.”

The torch protests have stirred up patriotic resentment among many ordinary Chinese who feel they politicize a sporting event that should be a celebration of 30 years of economic development and opening to the outside world.

Western leaders are facing a delicate balancing act as calls mount for them to boycott the Olympics opening ceremony.

Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said in a speech to Chinese students that it was important to recognize there were “significant human rights problems” in Tibet, although he did not back calls for a boycott.

(Take a look at the Countdown to Beijing blog at http:/blogs.reuters.com/china)

Additional reporting by Jim Christie, Amanda Beck, Robert Galbraith, Erin Siegal and Philipp Gollner in San Francisco, Richard Cowan in Washington, Guo Shipeng and Nick Mulvenney in Beijing, Lucy Hornby in Xiahe, and John Ruwitch in Hong Kong; Witing by Emma Graham-Harrison and Adam Tanner; Editing by Charles Dick and Frances Kerry

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