A Washington-based group committed to ending genocide in Sudan's violence-plagued Darfur region has submitted petitions from more than 40,000 people to China's embassy, calling on Beijing to redouble efforts to help save Darfur's civilian population. VOA's Michael Bowman reports, a U.S. Olympic athlete who has taken an active role in the "Save Darfur" campaign hand-delivered the petitions.

With dozens of onlookers gathered around, Olympic speed skater Joey Cheek rang the buzzer at the main door to China's embassy in Washington, D.C.

"My name is Joey Cheek. I am on the U.S. Olympic team. And I am here to deliver petitions that we have collected over the last week imploring China to continue to act strongly to protect the civilians in Darfur," said Cheek.

Cheek, a gold and silver medalist who last year donated his Olympic bonus money to aid refugees in Darfur, clutched two thick binders containing petitions urging China to pressure Sudan to honor commitments to allow a hybrid United Nations-African Union peacekeeping force into Darfur.

Only Cheek was allowed inside the embassy, after a half-hour wait at the door. He reemerged moments later, saying embassy officials received the petitions and reacted positively to his idea of organizing a joint visit by U.S. and Chinese athletes to Darfur.

Speaking with reporters, Cheek said China, which has invested heavily in Sudan, has great leverage over Khartoum and should be urged to use that leverage to maximum effect when it comes to Darfur.

"We acknowledge the role that China has played up to this point in diplomacy and behind the scenes in trying to move forward on the hybrid peacekeeping force [for Darfur]," he said. "However, now, seven months later, people are still dying. The aid groups have decreased their presence on the ground from last year. And it appears that, financially, the connection [between Bejing and Khartoum] is only stronger."

Nearby, several dozen demonstrators bore signs in English and Chinese urging action in Darfur. Cheek gave them an assessment of their efforts that was alternately somber and upbeat.

"I think we have got a lot of work ahead of us," said Cheek. "The work that each of us has done so far in being able to stand here and deliver this message -- I know that it does make an impact. So, personally, I would like to thank you all for spending some of your time out here today, and I know that our efforts are not in vain."

Among those silently demonstrating in front of the Chinese embassy was Maryland resident Kathy Bovello.

"It is just incredible to me that people can be slaughtered for so long and nobody does anything about it. It is outrageous," said Bovello. "I guess I am not willing to go over there and be a human shield, but I have to do something to assuage my own conscience."

More than 200,000 people are believed to have perished over the last four years as pro-Sudanese government militias have slaughtered and displaced civilians while battling ethnic African rebels.

Aid agencies accuse Khartoum of hindering relief efforts, while the Bush administration and other governments have condemned Sudan's government for dragging its feet on allowing international peacekeeping forces into Darfur to stop the killings.

China is Sudan's largest foreign investor, and has poured substantial funds into Sudan's oil industry, which accounts for the majority of Sudan's exports and helps fund the country's military. China has endorsed sending a hybrid peacekeeping force to Darfur but has rejected punitive measures against Khartoum to pressure Sudan to take concrete steps to bring the violence to an end.

Speed skater Cheek says he does not back calls for a boycott of next year's Summer Olympics, which China is hosting. He says he would rather that athletes compete in the games, and then use the platform for advocacy on behalf of Darfur.