BEIJING (AFP) — China said Tuesday it would scale back the Olympic torch relay in response to the deadly Sichuan earthquake, following an Internet outcry branding organisers "inhuman" for insisting it should go ahead.
Reversing an earlier announcement, Sun Weide, spokesman for the Beijing Olympic organising committee, said that, starting from Wednesday's leg in the eastern province of Jiangxi, the relay would be cut back.
He said a minute's silence would also be observed before runners set off.
"The relay will be scaled down starting from Wednesday and procedures will be simplified," Sun told AFP. "The one minute of silence will reflect our concern for the earthquake victims."
Sun said the length of the relay would not be affected by the decision and that there were no immediate plans to modify the route at this stage.
But he said elaborate ceremonies surrounding the event would be scaled back, procedures simplified and the number of staff reduced.
"We will be cutting down on the speeches and the singing and dancing that have marked the relay so far and it will be a much simpler affair with fewer people involved," he said.
Tuesday's relay through the southeastern province of Fujian went ahead as normal despite the earthquake, drawing some fierce criticism in Internet chatrooms.
Posting the organising committee's main telephone number on Sina.com, a popular web portal, one resident of northern Hubei province said "all Chinese should ring them up and condemn them for being so inhuman."
A resident of Fujian said the relay should be cancelled and the money saved should be sent to help quake victims.
"I think this whole wasteful relay should be scrapped -- let's show a little humanity," the post said.
Initially there were no plans to change the relay, according to another spokesman for the Beijing organising committee, Li Zhanjun, who said after the leg that the quake would not affect the Gaems' preparation nor the torch relay.
And on its website, the Beijing Olympic organising committee showed a picture of China's Olympic weightlifting medallist Zhang Xiangxiang flashing a smile as he prepared to run the first stage of Tuesday's leg.
The 7.9-magnitude quake that struck Monday in southwest China's Sichuan province has killed more than 12,000 people, and there are fears the death toll will rise further.
Sun said the toned-down torch relay would help relief efforts and that collection boxes for quake victims would be set up at the start of each relay leg, along the route and at the finish.
The International Olympic Committee has donated one million dollars to earthquake relief and IOC chief Jacques Rogge has written to China's president Hu Jintao expressing condolences, according to an IOC statement.
On Wednesday, the relay -- whose motto is "Journey of Harmony" -- was scheduled to head to Jiangxi province as it continues its three-month journey through China, which culminates in Beijing with the lighting of the Olympic cauldron on August 8 to begin the Games.
The relay is due to pass through Sichuan province in mid-June. A leg is planned for the provincial capital Chengdu on June 18, four days after visiting Chongqing -- which is also reeling from the quake.
The relay has been dogged by protests since the flame was ignited in Olympia, Greece, on March 24, with international legs experiencing protests over China's rule of Tibet, its human rights record and support of Sudan's pariah government.
When the relay ends, the torch will have travelled 137,000 kilometres (85,000 miles) around the globe over 130 days, the longest Olympic torch relay in history.
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