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Monday, 25 September, 2000, 06:21 GMT 07:21 UK
Among the protesters

Developing countries have nothing to lose but their (debt) chains, the protesters believe
by BBC News Online's Steve Schifferes in Prague

Earlier on a bright Sunday morning, campaigners on debt relief were gathering outside a Prague church in the Old Town to organise their march through the city centre.

Jimmy Thorsell and around 40 of his friends had arrived from Sweden by bus earlier in the week. They are members of the Green Party, campaigning against the role of the IMF in promoting free trade and the interests of multinational companies, which Mr Thorsell says makes poor countries poorer.

Protesters on the streets of Prague
Commemorating the dead in the developing world
Some marchers have dressed up in black cloaks to symbolise death, while others carry crosses or death mask faces on tall poles. Despite the serious subject - the marchers say that 19,000 children are dying each day because of the high burden of debts in poor countries - there is something of a carnival atmosphere, and the police are keeping a very low profile.

The marchers, mainly young, have come from across Europe, with banners in German, Italian, English and Czech. Among the large contingent from England is a group of trade unionists from the Northeast, bearing a large banner for Unison, the public sector trade union.

Jimmy Thorsell who is from Uppsala, says that he sees himself as part of a world-wide movement of protest.

Protester with a
"Dump the debt" is the slogan of the World Bank's critics
"What is happening now hasn't happened since the anti-Vietnam war protests of the 1960s," he told me. "Young people from around the globe are coming together to campaign for economic justice - and our movement is growing."

Mr Thorsell says he will also be taking part in the protests on Tuesday against the IMF and World Bank, which the Prague police have banned after demonstrators said they would try and blockade delegates in the meeting at the Congress centre.

But he says that he is against violence, and will leave that march if there is any sign of trouble.

Denouncing global capitalism

Across town, meanwhile, in a small community centre in a working class district of Prague, other protesters are holding an alternative summit.

Anarchists, communists and radical environmentalists have stands at the back of the meeting, and there are no religious leaders in sight.

Journalist Naomi Klein is speaking, denouncing global capitalism for giving kids "Pepsi instead of blood, and Microsoft Windows instead of brains."

She says the protests are as much about cultural as economic concerns, and praises the "radical street warriors" for showing the world that you cannot dehumanise people and for "reclaiming our most human desires."

Pile of placards
Waiting for demonstrators to take up the cause
It is a powerful speech, but in the discussion that follows she is criticised for becoming a "brand" herself because of her success as an author.

At the conference is Stuart McKee from London, a member of a small left-wing party whose website is destroyimf.org.

He hopes the protests will shut down the IMF, and says the demonstration will be saying that people have had enough of the exploitation of the Third World by the IMF and multinational companies.

But he is worried that the "hype" about the potential for violence will lead police to over-react to what is intended to be purely a symbolic and non-violent action. And he criticises politicians for telling people not to come to Prague.

Heavily guarded centre

In the heavily guarded Prague Congress Centre delegates and police are waiting anxiously to see whether large scale protests will take place.

The Centre is located several miles from the city centre, and the police have cordoned off the building with a double set of barriers and evacuated residents from nearby streets.

The only traffic allowed through are the conference buses which shuttle delegates between their hotels and the meeting.

But working inside the centre are the representatives of many of the same organisations that have been organising the peaceful protests.

Over 350 non-governmental groups representing development, environment and debt campaigners are lobbying delegates and members of the press, using their own mobile phones, laptops and palm pilots to argue against IMF and World Bank policies.

None of these organisations endorse the violent demonstrations planned for Tuesday, but they do share some of the same objectives and concerns of the protesters about the role of the IMF in developing countries.

They have been allowed unprecedented access, meeting with IMF and World Bank officials including World Bank boss James Wolfensohn in an attempt to diffuse the protest.

Even Czech President Vaclav Havel joined in, chairing a debate at Prague Castle between protest groups and leaders of the IMF and World Bank.

None of this is likely to deter those protesters who want to take direct action on Tuesday - but it is a sign of how seriously the anti-globalisation campaign is now taken at the highest levels.

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See also:

25 Sep 00 | Business
'Widespread' discontent at IMF
24 Sep 00 | Business
Debt protesters take to the streets
21 Sep 00 | Business
Prague prepares for protests
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