San Francisco bracing for Olympic flame protests

SAN FRANCISCO (AFP) — San Francisco city officials have vowed to thwart protesters at the US leg of the Beijing Olympic torch's troubled global relay here Wednesday following the chaotic scenes in Paris and London.

Mayor Gavin Newsom told local media Monday that the route for the relay would be changed and security reinforced to keep protestors at bay after demonstrators forced an abrupt end to the torch's procession through Paris.

"We anticipate problems here," Newsom told CBS 5 television, after three activists made a dramatic climb up the city's landmark Golden Gate Bridge to protest against China's recent crackdown in Tibet.

Newsom said a six-mile torch route released last week was now likely to be changed and could even be adapted during Wednesday's event.

"We will continue to adapt," Newsom said. "This route is not fixed. It will continue to change and it will change up until the torch is passed -- and even during the middle of the route."

Monday's event in Paris saw constant interruptions by hundreds of campaigners protesting China's human rights record, forcing officials to douse the torch several times before the planned procession was halted.

Similar scuffles were seen in London on Sunday, where 37 arrests were made after rowdy protests.

Large-scale protests are also being planned in San Francisco, where police are expected to drape an unprecedented security blanket over the torch's route.

Several hundred police are expected to line the streets for the only appearance of the torch on US soil during its 85,000-mile, 21-country journey.

"As events have unfolded around the world we have been monitoring them consistently," San Francisco Police Sergeant Neville Gittens told AFP.

"We are looking at what occurred in London and Paris and are adjusting our plans accordingly."

However San Francisco police appeared to have been caught cold by Monday's protest at the landmark Golden Gate Bridge, where demonstrators scooted up the bridge's cables using climbing gear to unfurl their giant banner.

One of the three climbers, later arrested, told a local radio station that he was part of Students for a Free Tibet and that the protest hoped to focus world attention on China's policy in the Himalayan region.

"We started ... to bring the attention of the world on the rights abuse happening in Tibet and the way China is trying to use the torch to mask the torture that is going on in Tibet today," Laurel Sutherland said.

"I think it is fair to say that San Francisco is a city of conscience and people here will have their voices heard when the torch comes through."

Anger over Chinese policy in Tibet has been building in San Francisco, where the city's political leadership passed a symbolic resolution last week to greet the Olympic torch with "alarm and protest."

Archbishop Desmond Tutu and actor Richard Gere are to attend a pro-Tibet demonstration in the city on Tuesday, during which a "freedom torch" that has shadowed the Olympic torch will be carried to the Chinese consulate.

Tsering Gyurmey, secretary of the Tibetan Association of Northern California, told AFP protestors would be encouraged to demonstrate peacefully.

"We are urging all our supporters to be very peaceful and not be in confrontation with anybody," he said.

"I think in London and Paris people wanted to be peaceful, but they see the torch come through and see it as tainted with Tibetan blood."

Meanwhile Democratic presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton urged President George W. Bush to boycott the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics, saying he should press China over Tibet and Darfur.

"At this time, and in light of recent events, I believe President Bush should not plan on attending the opening ceremonies in Beijing, absent major changes by the Chinese government," Clinton said.

Clinton's call came after the White House rejected moves in Congress to press the president to skip the ceremony in protest.

Bush has said he plans to attend the games, in contrast with German Chancellor Angela Merkel's plans to skip the ceremony, and French President Nicolas Sarkozy's revelation that he may follow suit.

In light of the disruptions marring the international torch relay, the International Olympic Committee members will consider shutting it down early, a top official said in Beijing.

The IOC executive board begins a three-day meeting in Beijing on Thursday.