Thousands of Flemish seperatists stage march near Brussels

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Thousands of Flemish nationalists marched Sunday under tight security on the outskirts of Brussels to stake their claim to a part of Belgium at the heart of the country's linguistic feud.

Amid a sea of yellow-and-black flags and balloons -- the colours of northern Dutch-speaking Flanders -- separatists clamoured "Our country!" through the largely French-speaking streets of Lindebeek as police helicopters hovered ahead and 300 officers stood watch.

Police estimated marchers at 2,000 to 3,000 while organisers said 5,500 people had turned out for a protest taking place just kilometres away from the heart of the Belgian capital.

It came days after the country's divided politicians announced a breakthrough in 15 months of efforts to end the longest political crisis in Belgian history, which has left it without a government for a world-record 462 days.

At the heart of the dispute between the language communities of Flanders and the French-speakers in southern Wallonia is the future of Brussels and 35 districts on its outskirts that make up the nation's last bilingual electoral constituency.

"Belgium is dead, the only solution to the crisis is independence," Filip De Winter, a leader of the far-right Vlaams Belang party, told AFP.

"This is Flemish land," he added of Brussels and Linkebeek, which lie geographically within Flanders but where French-speakers have won special language and voting rights.

"We have come here to show that Linkebeek is and will remain a Flemish district despite the wishes of the French-speakers who have come to live here over the years," said one of the organisers, Roel de Lenner.

The march gathered both hardline nationalist groups as well as members of the separatist New Flemish Alliance (N-VA), which garnered the majority in Flanders in general elections of June 2010 that failed to throw up a workable governing coalition.

The N-VA has refused to join ongoing talks between eight other mainstream parties from both sides of the language divide to form a government.

Protesters complained of losing portions of ancient Flanders to Wallonia while their taxes went to fund social services in the struggling south.

"A united Belgium will never work," said 62-year-old Jean-Luc Berten. "We are rightwingers, they're leftwingers, we pour money in constantly, our cultural differences are simply too great."

Talks are continuing between the politicians, notably on devolving more power to the regions -- a key demand by leaders of the 6.2 million people of Flanders in face of the widening gulf with the 4.5 million French-speakers.

Resolving the crisis is a matter of urgency for Belgium, a member of the debt-stricken eurozone. Ratings agencies have warned that Belgium's credit score could be downgraded if it remains without a government for too long.

© 2011 AFP

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