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Thursday, 8 November, 2001, 17:03 GMT
Doha on high alert
Policeman and his dog check Doha's Sheraton hotel
Qatar was nearly ditched as a venue due to security worries
Ben Brown

Security has been stepped up dramatically following the arrival of the US delegation for the world trade talks in Doha in the Gulf state of Qatar.

So I discovered when I emerged briefly from the conference centre to get a lift with the ubiquitous people carriers that are ferrying delegates and journalists alike around Doha.

Despite my protestations that I merely wanted to pick up a piece of equipment, I was whisked off to the media accreditation centre miles from the conference, and then directed to the buses going to the various hotels.

As we arrived at our hotel, the truth gradually began to dawn on us - including a large party of Japanese journalists just off the plane and loaded with gear - that the whole of Doha was being shut to traffic.

As the bus attempted to wind its way around the small side streets, the driver announced that everyone would have to get off and walk the last 500 yards - and to please avoid going on the street!

The new arrivals struggled in the 90 degree heat with their heavy bags.

Military presence

Suddenly soldiers appeared every 50 yards, while a roadblock sealed off our road with a police Land Rover and army half-truck with a mounted machine gun on the back.

Qatari police check a car in front of the Sheraton Hotel in Doha, Qatar
Police checks at every 50 yards

Roadblocks with tank traps and soldiers in combat gear replaced the more laid-back police force at major intersections, who had been lolling on chairs under tents by the side of the road.

For what seemed a very long time, nothing moved in Doha - except the sound of the police patrol vehicle slowly sweeping around the hotel complex.

And there was no information at all until the hotel staff explained that it was all a security alert.

Then suddenly, to the sound of evening prayers - it was over. A bus roared up and deposited us back at the media centre, where long queues built up for transportation to the conference - now segregated with delegates and journalists travelling separately.

Check-points

With a policeman in the front seat, we passed the first four checkpoints on the seafront drive (Al Corniche) without incident.

But we noticed long lines of cars either forced to park by the side of the road or diverted for security checks.

Finally we reached the hotel and conference centre, now resplendent in the sunset - but no luck at the last checkpoint. We were sent round the back to the media security check.

By then Mr Zoellick, the US trade representative, had long departed.

The Qatar government is right to be worried by the threat of terrorism against Americans, with a shooting at a US airbase in the south of the country earlier in the week.

And they have impressed the Americans of their determination by mobilising what seemed to be most of the army and police force.

But I have learned my lesson - don't ever leave the conference centre.

See also:

23 Nov 99 | Business
A century of free trade
24 Nov 99 | Business
Policing world trade
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