By Jim Christie and Amanda Beck
SAN FRANCISCO, April 9 (Reuters) - The Olympic torch's only stop in North America turned into a game of hide and seek on Wednesday as San Francisco abruptly changed the route, angering both China supporters and protesters.
Thousands of people converged along the announced scenic Embarcadero waterfront route. But after the opening ceremony, the first runner was flanked by blue-clad Chinese security officials and carried the torch into a warehouse. The torch eventually turned up miles away, leaving crowds baffled.
"I think we were cheated, because I think the meaning of the relay was to show the whole world that our country is hosting the Olympics," said Michael Huo, 30, a Chinese engineer working at a Silicon Valley start-up company.
The torch was a magnet last week for chaotic demonstrations in London and Paris over China's human rights record and its recent crackdown on Tibet. Beijing, embarrassed as it prepares to host the Olympics, has strongly condemned the protests.
San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom told Reuters that the route had to be radically changed at the last minute or the event cancelled to ensure public safety.
"We assessed the situation and felt that we could not secure the torch and protect the protesters and supporters to the degree that we wished," Newsom said by cell phone. "As a consequence we engaged in subsequent contingency planning that we felt would keep people safe."
The bewildering changes united supporters and protesters who had been divided by politics. Both sides were angered by the sudden changes to the only North American leg of the torch's journey to the Beijing Olympic Games in August.
"I think it's cowardly. If they can't run the torch through the city, it means that no one is supporting the games," said Matt Helmenstine, 30, a California high school teacher who carried a Tibetan flag.
CRUSHED OUR FREEDOM
After the torch initially disappeared from view, police boats and jet skis hinted it might be headed up the waterfront by boat. But an hour after the scheduled start, the torch appeared on a less scenic north-south street more than two miles (three km) away.
A planned closing ceremony on the waterfront was scrapped and the torch brought to San Francisco International Airport, where few saw its farewell.
Four Tibetan protesters and two Chinese supporters went to the airport after seeing the motorcade head that way.
"We were at the Embarcadero for seven hours and we haven't even seen the torch. It's like someone has crushed our freedom," said Tenzin Jigme, 26, a Tibetan-American.
San Francisco has a large Chinese-American population and many had waited proudly to see the torch relay. But before the start of the torch run, tensions mounted amid confrontations with anti-China protesters.
Police cited at least two people and released them.
In front of the city's ferry building, Christine Lias, 30, was quickly surrounded by more than 30 Chinese-Americans after she yelled: "Free Tibet now!"
"Liar, liar, shame on you!" many in the group shouted.
On a beautiful spring day, San Francisco deployed hundreds of security officers, including FBI agents backed up by police cars, harbour boats, jet skis and helicopters.
Thousands of pro-China spectators gathered along the original planned route, many flying the five-star Communist Chinese flag alongside U.S. and Olympic flags.
"In 5,000 years of Olympic history the Chinese can finally have one time hosting the Olympics. It means that China is becoming a world power," said Don Zheng, 41, a Chinese-American computer engineer who emigrated in 1988.
Many Chinese Americans are proud that their ancestral home is hosting the global sporting event and resent the protests.
"I'm loyal to the U.S. but I love China because it's my motherland," said Alice Liu, 50, who came to the United States after the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests.
The torch relays have attracted many groups unhappy about a range of China-related issues, including Tibet, its human rights record and policies on Sudan's Darfur region. Critics say China should use more of its clout with Sudan to ease the bloody conflict in Darfur.
China blames Tibet's spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, and his associates for orchestrating monk-led protests in Tibet last month as part of a campaign for independence. The Dalai Lama denies this.
Hours before the San Francisco relay, President George W. Bush urged China to open a dialogue with the Dalai Lama. Bush and other Western leaders are facing a delicate balancing act as calls mount for them to boycott the Olympics opening ceremony.
Olympics chief Jacques Rogge told the Wall Street Journal that reports the International Olympic Committee executive board would consider scrapping the torch relay outside China, to avoid more ugly scenes, were "based on a misunderstanding."
(Take a look at the Countdown to Beijing blog at http:blogs.reuters.com/china)