SAN FRANCISCO (AFP) — Baton-wielding police kept thousands of demonstrators away from the Beijing Olympics flame on its only stop in the United States on its chaotic world tour.
In contrast to the trouble seen at the Paris and London relays, there was no major violence at Wednesday's relay but organizers changed the route in a bid to wrongfoot protesters around San Francisco.
Within seconds of the start of the official parade the first runner had disappeared into a dockside warehouse. The relay then took a shorter route through the city before the torch arrived at San Francisco International Airport for the official closing ceremony.
San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom defended the decision to change course, which left thousands of Olympics supporters disappointed after they failed to get a glimpse of the flame.
"The crowds were so large and there was so much uncertainty that we had to make a tough decision and it resulted in many people missing the opportunity of a lifetime," Newsom said.
"I'm sorry. I wanted this to be a perfect event. I want this world to be a perfect world. I want what happened in Paris not to have happened. I want what happened in London not to have happened."
"We decided not to create major problems out in the street and decided to do this in a way that would be safe ... We could easily be having a conversation about people being arrested or people being injured."
Newsom critic Aaron Peskin, president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, was unimpressed.
"Gavin Newsom runs San Francisco the way the premier of China runs his country - secrecy, lies, misinformation, lack of transparency and manipulating the populace," Peskin told the San Francisco Chronicle. "He did it so China can report they had a great torch run."
However the head of the US Olympic Committee, Peter Ueberroth, backed Newsom. "The city of San Francisco, from a global perspective, will be applauded," he told the Chronicle.
International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge expressed satisfaction that the San Francisco event had passed off relatively trouble-free. "It was however not the joyous party that we had wished it to be," Rogge said in Beijing.
San Francisco police said in a statement that despite minor incidents, there were no arrests. But an AFP photographer witnessed one pro-Tibet protestor being led away in handcuffs after a standoff with pro-China supporters.
And a Chinese-born US citizen sparked angry scenes when he attempted to unfurl a Tibetan flag near the starting point.
Xiao Tan, a 32-year-old medical student from Stanford University, was pushed and shoved by furious pro-Chinese supporters who attempted to rip the flag from his hands while smothering him with their own banners.
"I'm here because although I'm a proud Chinese and I don't like what's happening in Tibet," Xiao told AFP while being jostled.
World leaders have faced mounting calls from rights groups to boycott the Beijing Olympics opening ceremony in protest against China's recent crackdown on Tibet, which it has ruled since 1950.
The White House again refused to say whether President George W. Bush would attend, saying it was "extremely premature" to predict his his schedule for August.
Bush vowed to press China on human rights at the Beijing Olympics but chafed at calls for a boycott.
"Nobody needs to tell old George Bush that he needs to bring religious freedom to the doorstep of the Chinese, because I've done that now for -- I'm on my eighth year doing it," he told EWTN television, a Catholic network, in an interview to be broadcast Friday.
"I've talked about freedom of religion every time I visited with them. I've talked about Darfur. I've talked about Burma. I've talked about (Tibetan spiritual leader) the Dalai Lama. I don't need the Olympics to express my position."
The Olympic flame is set to travel through 20 countries on its 137,000-kilometer journey from Greece to Beijing.
The torch heads to Buenos Aires Thursday and Friday, and 12 more countries before arriving in China in early May.
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