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Saturday, 9 November, 2002, 22:13 GMT
Huge anti-war protest in Florence
Demonstrators run down the road during the demonstration
There is a carnival atmosphere among demonstrators
Hundreds of thousands of protesters from across Europe joined a rally in the Italian city of Florence on Saturday to voice their opposition to any war with Iraq.

The march started early because of the massive number of people who had gathered to participate.

The atmosphere here is wonderful... it shows that a new young left is emerging

Stavos Valsamis
Greek protester
There was no official police count of the numbers taking part, but observers estimated that about 300,000 people had turned out.

The protest is the climax of the first meeting of the European Social Forum, which has brought together anti-globalisation campaigners from across the continent for five days of debates, conferences and concerts.

The event has been largely peaceful so far but the Italian authorities, fearing a repeat of the violence at last year's G8 summit in Genoa, have deployed thousands of police on the streets of the historic city.

Jovial scenes

Led by a banner that read "No war" the protesters, many carrying placards or coloured flags, processed through the city to the sounds of whistles and music.

A man boards up a replica of Michelangelo's David
The city's works of art are being protected

Correspondents say there was a carnival atmosphere, with the crowd being entertained by clowns and jugglers and some participants eating or rollerblading along the route.

Brass bands and people playing bagpipes were also out on the march.

"The atmosphere here is wonderful. Absolutely perfect. It shows that a new young left is emerging," said Stavos Valsamis, a 27-year-old Greek activist from Athens.

Resolution retaliation

But the message behind the rally was a serious one: "Take your war and go to hell," one banner read. "Bush, Blair and Berlusconi - assassins" said another.

Several protesters carried placards saying "Not in my name", reflecting anger at what marchers see as a false attempt by Western governments to claim popular support for their policies on Iraq.

"We want to demonstrate that a different world is possible," said Noemi Cucchi, who travelled from the Italian port of Ancona with her sister.

Despite most marchers being European, there were some Americans in the crowd, including a group of Vietnam veterans declaring themselves against war in Iraq.

Participants in the forum on Friday expressed anger at the United Nations Security Council resolution on weapons inspections.

And correspondents say the vote appears to have energised the demonstrators, who have turned out in far greater numbers than predicted.

The BBC's Andrew North in Florence said that many of the demonstrators had told him they believed the resolution had made attending the march more important.

Although Iraq is top of the agenda, our correspondent said it was not the only issue being highlighted.

About 100 protesters carried a huge Palestinian flag to draw attention to the Middle East conflict.

Security measures

Although police tried to keep a low profile and did not resort to closing the city centre, as happened in Genoa, about 6,000 were drafted in to protect the city's art treasures and businesses.

Marchers carrying red banners
Demonstrators and police were keen to avoid violence

The route of the march ran from the north of the city, along the River Arno, to a football stadium, where a concert featuring Italian rock bands was due to take place.

It did not pass through the city centre, but concerns about possible violence prompted many businesses to close for the weekend, and statues and works of art were cordoned off.

The air space above the city was closed to private aircraft.

Working together

The authorities and demonstrators both appeared keen to avoid the kind of trouble that marred the G8 summit, where police shot one protester dead amid scenes of mayhem on the streets of Genoa.

The Italian police worked closely with representatives of other European police forces to weed out members of the Black Block - hardliners responsible for past violence.

The Schengen Treaty - which normally allows travel within 15-European Union nations without border controls - was suspended temporarily.

And the forum organisers had their own security service to ensure that troublemakers did not infiltrate the march for peace.

The BBC's Brian Barron
"Turnout of up to half a million"
See also:

09 Nov 02 | Europe
08 Nov 02 | Middle East
22 Jul 02 | Europe
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