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Planned closing torch ceremony at San Francisco Bay waterfront canceled

SHARE Planned closing torch ceremony at San Francisco Bay waterfront canceled

SAN FRANCISCO — Officials say the planned closing ceremony for the Olympic torch at the San Francisco Bay waterfront is canceled and another one will take place at an undisclosed location.

The ceremony had been slated to take place Wednesday at Justin Herman Plaza, where thousands had gathered to support and protest the Beijing-bound flame's visit to the city.

Just before the relay began, the torch was rerouted about a mile away from the demonstrators and spectators. Officials say they changed the path because of security concerns.

San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom tells The Associated Press that a closing ceremony will still take place, but he would not specify where.

The Olympic torch was rerouted away from thousands of demonstrators and spectators who crowded the city's waterfront Wednesday to witness the flame's symbolic journey to the Beijing Games.

The first torchbearer took the flame from a lantern brought to the stage and held it aloft before running into a warehouse. A motorcycle escort departed, but the torchbearer was nowhere in sight.

Then officials drove the Olympic torch about a mile inland and handed it off to two runners away from protesters and media.

Less than an hour before the relay began, officials cut the original six-mile route nearly in half. The flame's only North American stop has drawn thousands of demonstrators gathered to praise and condemn China during the flame's journey to Beijing.

Chi Zhang, a software engineer from Sunnyvale, waited to see the torch since 10 a.m. He shook his head sadly four hours later when he heard the route had been changed.

"That's surprising," he said. "We were very excited about this. This was supposed to be the only stop in the United States. I took a day off work to be here."

Sam Chagzoetsang, 22, of Salt Lake City, said he hadn't yet seen the torch because of the re-route.

Chagzoetsang told the Deseret Morning News via cell phone that he was among protestors trying to align themselves with the final leg of the new torch-run route and closing ceremony.

"We are winning," he says. "They can't run it across the route they're supposed to."

And, for Chagzoetsang, whose parents fled Tibet decades ago, that's a minor victory compared to his hope that the protest will impact China's policies.

"Our main message is we don't want the torch run through Tibet," Chagzoetsang said. "All the Tibetans are oppressed, things have gotten so bad in Tibet. ... China is already trying to make an example in Tibet. It will only make the situation worse if they send the torch through Tibet."

There were signs of tension even before the torch relay began. Pro-Tibet and pro-China groups were given side-by-side permits to demonstrate, and representatives from both sides spilled from their sanctioned sites across a major street and shouted at each other nose to nose, with no visible police presence to separate them.

"A lot of Tibetan people are getting killed," said Kunga Yeshi, 18, who had traveled here from Salt Lake City. "The Chinese said they'd change if they got the Olympics, but they still won't change."

Farther along the planned route, about 200 Chinese college students mobbed a car carrying two people waving Tibetan flags in front of the city's Pier 39 tourist destination. The students, who arrived by bus from the University of California, Davis, banged drums and chanted "Go Olympics" in Chinese.

"I'm proud to be Chinese and I'm outraged because there are so many people who are so ignorant they don't know Tibet is part of China," Yi Che said. "It was and is and will forever be part of China."

The torch's 85,000-mile, 20-nation global journey is the longest in Olympic history, and is meant to build excitement for the Beijing Games. But it has also been targeted by activists angered over China's human rights record

Hundreds of pro-China and pro-Tibet demonstrators blew whistles and waved flags as they faced off near site of the relay's opening ceremony. Police struggled to keep the groups apart. At least one protester was detained, and officers blocked public access to bridge leading to the ceremony site across McCovey Cove from the ballpark.

Among the people selected to carry the torch were ex-football star and former Olympic bobsledder Herschel Walker, 46; former Olympic beach volleyball gold medalist Kerri Walsh, 29; and swimmer Natalie Coughlin, who holds the world record for the 100-meter backstroke.

Zhou Wenzhon, 62, China's ambassador to the U.S. also was scheduled to participate.

One of the runners who planned to carry the torch dropped out earlier this week because of safety concerns, officials said. The torch bearers will compete not only with people protesting China's grip on Tibet, but its support for the governments of Myanmar and Sudan.

Three blocks from the waterfront torch route, a few dozen activists with the Washington-based Save Darfur group, sought to get their message out. Among them were Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, of Ben & Jerry's ice cream fame, who stood near a van sporting a six-foot-tall stainless steel torch — complete with gas-fired flame — resembling the Olympic torch.

"We're asking China to extinguish the flames of genocide in Darfur," Cohen said. "China is the one country that has enough influence with Sudan to end the genocide. They really have no choice but to use that influence."

Local officials say they support the diversity of viewpoints, but have tightened security following chaotic protests during the torch's stops in London and Paris and a demonstration Monday in which activists hung banners from the Golden Gate bridge.

Vans were deployed to haul away arrested protesters, and the FAA restricted flights over the city to media helicopters, medical emergency carriers and law enforcement aircraft. Law enforcement agencies erected metal barricades and readied running shoes, bicycles and motorcycles for officers preparing to shadow the runners.

The Olympic flame began its worldwide trek from Ancient Olympia in Greece to Beijing on March 24, and was the focus of protests right from the start.

San Francisco was chosen to host the relay in part because of its large Chinese-American population.

IOC president Jacques Rogge met with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao on Wednesday to discuss preparations for the games, and "a range of games topics were discussed," the IOC said.

Rogge is to give more details at a news conference Friday, when the IOC's executive board is to discuss Friday whether to end the remaining international legs of the relay after San Francisco because of widespread protest. The torch is scheduled to travel to Buenos Aires, Argentina, and then to a dozen other countries before arriving in China on May 4. The Olympics begin Aug. 8.

Rogge has refrained from criticizing China, saying he prefers to engage in "silent diplomacy" with the Chinese.

In an interview broadcast Wednesday on the VRT television network in his native Belgium, Rogge warned that pushing China too hard on Tibet and human rights would be counterproductive.

"If you know China, you know that mounting the barricades and using tough language will have the opposite effect," he said. "China will close itself off from the rest of the world, which, don't forget it, it has done for some 2,000 years."

Meanwhile Wednesday, the White House said anew that Bush would attend the Olympics, but left open the possibility that he would skip the opening ceremonies. Asked whether Bush would go to that portion of the games, White House press secretary Dana Perino demurred, citing the fluid nature of a foreign trip schedule this far out and the many factors that go into devising it.

"I would again reiterate that the president has been very clear that he believes that the right thing for him to do is to continue to press the Chinese on a range of issues, from human rights and democracy, political speech freedoms and religious tolerance, and to do that publicly and privately, before, during and after the Olympics," she said.

Contributing: Deborah Bulkley, Deseret Morning News