/ 9 April 2008

San Francisco braced to greet Olympic torch

Thousands of protesters were expected to line the route of the latest leg of the Olympic torch’s ”Journey of Harmony” on Wednesday as officials in San Francisco braced themselves for a repetition of the tumultuous scenes in Paris and London.

A broad coalition of protest groups — from Burmese monks to Amnesty International members — has converged on the city ahead of the only United States leg of the torch’s 21-nation tour.

All police leave had been cancelled in the city as authorities braced themselves for thousands of protesters along the waterfront route. The mayor’s office said it was still examining changes to the ceremony should they be necessary.

Arriving in darkness early on Tuesday morning, the torch was taken to a secure location ahead of Wednesday’s 9,6km parade through the city. The low-key arrival, aboard Air China 2008, offered a rare moment of calm in the torch’s controversial journey. There were no protesters to greet the flame at San Francisco International Airport, just a handful of local dignitaries.

”We treated it like a head-of-state visit,” airport spokesperson Mike McCaron said.

But on Monday, protesters unfurled two banners demanding freedom for Tibet from high on the Golden Gate bridge. Seven were arrested.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu and actor and Tibet activist Richard Gere were due to attend a vigil in the city on Tuesday night, while Burmese monks were to lead a march across the bridge on Wednesday.

The torch relay has attracted a range of activist organisations. Groups protesting against China’s policies in Darfur, Burma and Sudan are expected to protest alongside human rights groups, some with a specific focus, such as Falun Gong and the International Campaign for Tibet.

Although officials denied reports that Wednesday’s procession might be cancelled, the International Olympic Committee president, Jacques Rogge, said his executive board would meet on Friday to discuss ending the international legs of the tour. The torch is due to travel to Buenos Aires next.

San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom met China’s ambassador to the US on Monday to discuss the relay. A spokesperson for the mayor said the ambassador had expressed concern about events in Paris and London and asked how they could be avoided in San Francisco.

The city was an obvious if problematic choice for the US leg. It has the largest Chinese population of any US city — about 20% of residents are of Chinese descent. But it also has a history of liberal protest, dating back to the Vietnam War.

In Paris, the French Interior Minister, Michèle Alliot-Marie, on Tuesday defended police conduct against claims of heavy-handedness.

The newspaper Le Parisien accused the 3 000-strong police presence of ”brutality”. A police authority investigation was begun on Tuesday after a cameraman from France 2 TV was hit over the head by police and briefly lost consciousness.

Officers sprayed tear gas to break up a sit-in by about 300 pro-Tibet demonstrators who blocked the route and police tackled protesters who ran at the torch.

Alliot-Marie on Tuesday announced an internal investigation into the claims that some officers improperly ripped away Tibetan flags from protesters. Police confiscated some of the flags and at times dealt roughly with the demonstrators. The TV news showed a protester being carried by police, shouting ”Free Tibet” through a bloody mouth.

The minister said the police had ”done their jobs well” during the relay, adding that there had been ”a certain number of fights” between spectators. Of 18 protesters arrested, one was still in custody on Tuesday. — guardian.co.uk Â