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Walkout at Iran leader's speech

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Diplomats walk out of the summit and protesters heckle Iran's leader

Diplomats have walked out of a UN anti-racism conference during a speech by the Iranian president in which he described Israel as "totally racist".

Dozens of delegates got up and left, moments after two protesters wearing coloured wigs disrupted the start of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's speech.

Diplomats who remained applauded as Mr Ahmadinejad continued his address.

France said it was a "hate speech" and the US called it "vile". Some countries had boycotted the meeting altogether.

The walkout is a public relations disaster for the United Nations, which had hoped the conference would be a shining example of what the UN is supposed to do best - uniting to combat injustice in the world, says the BBC's Imogen Foulkes in Geneva.

UN dismay

Paul Reynolds
Paul Reynolds
World affairs correspondent, BBC News website

The one issue that never seems to go away when conferences of this kind are held is the Israeli-Palestinian one.

A document has been already been agreed among those governments attending and you have to read it quite closely to detect the tremors remaining from the earthquakes in discussions that went before.

But enough contentious issues remain and the result is a boycott by the US, Israel, Germany, Italy, Australia, Canada and New Zealand.

The walkout by delegates from at least 30 countries happened within minutes of the start of the speech.

Most officials planned to return later to participate in the rest of the conference, although the Czech delegation announced it would join the boycott.

One of the two protesters escorted out of the conference hall managed to throw a red clown's nose at the Iranian president, as they yelled "racist, racist" as he stood at the podium.

Mr Ahmadinejad, the only major leader to attend the conference, said Jewish migrants from Europe and the United States had been sent to the Middle East after World War II "in order to establish a racist government in the occupied Palestine".

He continued, through an interpreter: "And in fact, in compensation for the dire consequences of racism in Europe, they helped bring to power the most cruel and repressive racist regime in Palestine."

French Ambassador Jean-Baptiste Mattei said: "As soon as he started to address the question of the Jewish people and Israel, we had no reason to stay in the room," the Associated Press news agency reported.

RACISM CONFERENCE

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British Ambassador Peter Gooderham, also among those who left, said "such inflammatory rhetoric has no place whatsoever in a United Nations conference addressing the whole issue of racism and how to address it."

Speaking to the BBC Radio 4's PM programme, he said of the Iranian leader's accusation of Israeli racism: "That is a charge we unreservedly condemn and so we had no hesitation at that point in leaving the conference hall."

The US, Israel, Canada, Australia, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland and New Zealand had all boycotted the conference being held in Geneva, in protest at Mr Ahmadinejad's appearance.

His comments were described as "an absolute disgrace" by Israeli President Shimon Peres, attending a Holocaust Remembrance Day event in Jerusalem.

Israel had earlier recalled its ambassador to Switzerland.

Mr Ahmadinejad told a press conference after his speech that the countries boycotting the forum were showing "arrogance and selfishness".

The US Deputy Ambassador to the UN, Alejandro Wolff, said the speech was "inaccurate", as well as showing disregard towards the UN, and "does a grave injustice to the Iranian nation and the Iranian people".

Speaking at UN headquarters in New York, he said: "We call on the Iranian leadership to show much measured, moderate, honest and constructive rhetoric when dealing with issues in the region, and not this type of vile, hateful, inciteful speech."

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner had warned that French delegates would walk out if the forum was used as a platform to attack Israel.

HAVE YOUR SAY
The whole point of these meetings is to represent the views of your nation and challenge the views of others
Gavin, Brussels

Speaking after the walkout, he said: "The defence of human rights and the fight against all types of racism are too important for the United Nations not to unite against all forms of hate speech, against all perversion of this message.

"Faced with attitudes like that which the Iranian president has just adopted, no compromise is possible."

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has expressed dismay at the boycotts and the speech, saying Mr Ahmadinejad had used his speech "to accuse, divide and even incite".



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