World leaders in France for D-Day anniversary

4th June 2004, Comments 0 comments

CAEN, France, June 4 (AFP) - World leaders will stand side-by-side this weekend with army veterans and tourists to commemorate the D-Day landings in Normandy, the turning-point in World War II that has come to symbolise the sacrifices made in the fight against tyranny.

CAEN, France, June 4 (AFP) - World leaders will stand side-by-side this weekend with army veterans and tourists to commemorate the D-Day landings in Normandy, the turning-point in World War II that has come to symbolise the sacrifices made in the fight against tyranny.

Exactly 60 years after Allied forces poured from landing-craft in the biggest seaborne invasion of all time, Sunday June 6 will see a series of national and international services of remembrance at cemeteries, memorials and battle sites along the 100-kilometre (60-mile) stretch of coast in northwestern France.

French President Jacques Chirac will be joined by some 20 heads of state or government including US President George W. Bush, whose presence in Rome and Paris in the days preceding the anniversary is expected to trigger widespread demonstrations against US policy in Iraq.

However the tone of the ceremonies will be one of reconciliation and shared values, with both France and the United States apparently eager to rebuild diplomatic bridges broken over last year's invasion.

According to a top aide travelling to Italy with Bush Friday, he will not use his address Sunday to draw comparisons between the Normandy landings and the Iraq war - an analogy deeply resented by oppenents of US policy - but instead honour those who died 60 years ago.

An enormous security operation has been launched to avert the risk of al-Qaeda or other terrorist attacks, with some 19,000 French soldiers, gendarmes and police mobilised in addition to visiting leaders' own security details.

The main ceremony sites, such as the hill-top overlooking the port of Arromanches where the international commemoration takes place Sunday afternoon, have been sealed off for days, and traffic will be closely controlled the length of the coast.

Sea and air exclusion zones will be enforced, with mobile ground-to-air Crotale missile batteries in place, an AWACS surveillance plane overhead and Mirage-2000 fighters on stand-by at nearby airbases.

For the first time D-Day commemorations will be attended by a German leader - a sign that after 60 years the wounds of Nazi conquest have definitively healed. Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder will attend a Franco-German ceremony at the Caen peace memorial as well as an all-German service at Ranville cemetery.

Vladimir Putin will also be the first Russian leader to attend, in a tacit acknowledgement that for most of the post-war period Soviet historians had downplayed the significance of the Normandy landings.

Britain's Queen Elizabeth II and Prime Minister Tony Blair, Australian Prime Minister John Howard, Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin and leaders from New Zealand, Poland, Belgium, Norway and the Netherlands are among the other dignitaries attending.

Weather forecasters predicted a partly sunny weekend with afternoon temperatures in the low 20s centigrade (70s Fahrenheit).

D-Day was the long-awaited opening of a second front in Europe to relieve pressure on the hard-pressed Russians and build on Allied successes in North Africa and the Middle East. After months of preparations, American, British and Canadian troops were sent to secure a foothold in Nazi-occupied France.

After three airborne divisions parachuted overnight behind German lines, at daybreak an armada of 4,300 ships bombarded the coast and unleashed the landing-craft against the beaches dubbed Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword.

Except at Omaha beach - where the Americans suffered heavy casualties - the landings were an unqualified success, leading to the fall of Normandy in July and then the Allied sweep through northern France into Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany.

Memorial services Sunday will remember the some 4,000 Allied troops who died on D-Day, and the 55,000 killed in the Normandy campaign. Many of these lie in 22 Allied cemeteries, such as the Colleville-sur-Mer US memorial overlooking Omaha beach where Bush will deliver his speech.

Such is the concentration of official events that the first will take place Saturday, with a Franco-Canadian ceremony at Beny-Reviers. Britain's Prince Charles will inaugurate a model of the Horsa gliders that brought in British troops to the key "Pegasus" bridge, and there will be a parachute drop by US troops at Sainte-Mere-Eglise.

Throughout the Lower Normandy region, where the landings are part of folk memory, hundreds of local events are scheduled - including march-pasts, decoration ceremonies for veterans, exhibitions, concerts and street parties.

As a symbol of Franco-American friendship, an exact copy of the Liberty Bell - the bell cast in 1751 and sounded at key moments in US history - was unveiled Friday in a ceremony at the seat for the Lower Normandy regional assembly at Caen.

Sunday's ceremonies will be the last major gathering of D-Day veterans as the events are now receding into history. In Normandy they have been preceded by a series of town-hall meetings where over the last months local people have recounted their memories.

"There is a real sense of urgency. Stories that people have kept bottled up for 60 years keep coming out. It's as if there is not much time left," said local historian Francoise Passera.


Subject: French news

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