Published: Wednesday September 5, 2007
SYDNEY (AFP) – The largest protest so far during US President George W. Bush’s visit to Sydney ended peacefully Wednesday, but police predicted a “full-scale riot” later in the week.
About 300 students, many still in their high school uniforms, marched through central Sydney chanting anti-war slogans in protest at the US leader’s presence in Australia for this week’s Asia-Pacific summit.
Police allowed the colourful rally, featuring a group of scantily-clad models and a pantomime horse, to march through a section of the city well away from where Bush was meeting with Prime Minister John Howard.
But authorities successfully appealed in the courts for a curb on the main protest action planned for Saturday, which police estimate could attract up to 20,000 demonstrators.
Chief superintendent Steven Cullen, head of the state Public Order and Riot Squad, said he had never been so worried about a demonstration in his career, predicting “horrendous” implications for public safety.
“Police lines will come under attack and a full-scale riot is probable,” Cullen told the Supreme Court.
The Stop Bush Coalition protest group agreed to change the route of the march so it did not pass the US consulate in the centre of the city’s financial district.
The court also ordered the protesters to stay away from a 2.8 metre (nine foot) high steel and concrete fence that snakes five kilometres (three miles) around the city centre, creating an exclusion zone for the visiting dignitaries.
Cullen told the court he had “absolutely no doubt” minority protest groups would attempt to violently disrupt the march and people would be hurt if there was a crush near the fence or they were pushed into glass-fronted buildings.
While police fear a repeat of the violence at last year’s G20 meeting in Melbourne, activists have labelled the unpredented security lockdown over much of Sydney as an attack on their right to peaceful protest.
“Protest is not violent, war is violent,” student Rainee Lyleson told Wednesday’s rally. “We will not be intimidated.”
Students dodged truancy officers and ignored police warnings to stay in their classrooms to attend the rally, organised by the left-wing group Resistance.
There was no sign of protest earlier when Bush held a joint press conference with Australian Prime Minister John Howard at a hotel in the centre of the exclusion zone.
Police searched the bags of pedestrians passing the venue, as helicopters buzzed overhead and officers with binoculars scanned the streets from rooftops.
Many of the city’s usually bustling streets were almost deserted amid the security operation involving 5,000 police and troops, with just a few onlookers hoping to catch a glimpse of the US leader through the security fence.
Some retailers, particularly high-end fashion and jewellery stores, were closed — with signs in their windows saying they would reopen after APEC.
Pavement garbage bins were sealed off with plastic covers while private security guards stood on duty outside office towers.
Some city centre businesses have reported a 50 percent fall in takings, although bicycle courier Rangi Smith said he had not been too badly affected.
“I can get around pretty easy on the bike but it’s the pedestrians I’m worried about,” he said, gesturing to onlookers near the security fence.
“They look like they’re in a cage — it’s like they’re imprisoned in their own city.”
The following video report ran on NBC News.
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