Protests turn ugly at NATO summit

5th April 2009, Comments 0 comments

Despite a 10,000-strong deployment of security forces, militants managed to set fire to a hotel near the Rhine bridge where US and French presidents Barack Obama and Nicolas Sarkozy had assembled earlier for a photo call.

Strasbourg -- Activists attacking NATO's role in Afghanistan and Iraq clashed with riot police and set property ablaze during Saturday's 60th anniversary alliance summit in Strasbourg.

Despite a 10,000-strong deployment of security forces, militants managed to set fire to a hotel near the Rhine bridge where US and French presidents Barack Obama and Nicolas Sarkozy had assembled earlier for a photo call.

Hardcore anarchist groups, calling themselves Black Blocks, splintered off from the main body of protestors, which numbered 30,000 according to organisers and 10,000 according to police.

Firefighters intervened to put out the flames on the ground floor of the Ibis hotel.

Some 100 masked demonstrators armed with metal bars also wrecked a chapel and other buildings at the French end of the Europe bridge connecting Strasbourg with Germany.

On the roof of the chapel they wrote a quotation from 19th century French writer Victor Hugo: "Religion is nothing but the shadow cast by the universe upon human intelligence."

A service station was also looted and volunteer medical teams attached to the march claimed that protesters had been injured by rubber bullets.

The tension saw a planned visit to a cancer research centre for spouses including Michelle Obama and Carla Bruni-Sarkozy scrapped and replaced by a museum and cathedral tour.

The militants were in the vanguard of clashes with CRS riot police using water cannon and tear gas ahead of the 1300 GMT starter's gun for what organisers had promised would be a "monster" rally.

Police were equipped with batons, helmets and body armour -- backed up by helicopters buzzing overhead.

Many demonstrators were masked and wore black, brandishing red and black flags, peace banners, beating drums and carrying pictures of Latin American revolutionary icon Che Guevara.

Some came prepared with their own gas masks.

The road was littered with signs of previous clashes: a smouldering barricade, broken glass and spent tear-gas grenades giving off an acrid smell.

As they marched, several protesters chanted "NATO means war! 60 years is enough!"

They waved banners reading "Make NATO History!", and, in a swipe at Obama's presidential campaign slogan: "Quit Iraq and Afghanistan. Yes We Can."

A Franco-German river patrol arrested around a dozen divers from environmental group Greenpeace who attempted to enter the Rhine in wetsuits ahead of the photo call.

And as the 28 leaders held talks, up to 200 demonstrators penetrated the outer security cordon and blocked traffic.

Both the police and protesters claimed victories, but it was set to be a long day with organisers hoping as many as 60,000 demonstrators would converge.

"We are winning the war," an officer from the CRS said at the bridge where the marchers were pushed back.

But a 45-year-old German whose group blocked a tram route taking journalists to the summit venue disagreed.

"We are near the congress centre.... It is a first victory for us because President Sarkozy said that he didn't want to see demonstrators on the street," he told AFP.

Around a hundred CRS lined out across the flashpoint bridge -- the focus of cat-and-mouse antics since Thursday -- waving marchers through a small gap around a dozen at a time.

"This is intimidation," said a protester dressed as a clown, blowing kisses and waving a large sunflower at the police line.

There were also protests in Turkey, where more than 1,000 people in Istanbul rallied against Obama's visit, planned for Monday and Tuesday. They called on Obama to stay away and told him to get out of Afghanistan.

AFP/Expatica

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