Thousands Protest as Conflict Begins
Thursday 20 March 2003
Tensions rose as police tried to control the mass of anti-war protesters gathering in Parliament Square today.
An estimated 5,000 demonstrators, the majority of them schoolchildren, thronged the streets to voice their anger against today's US air strikes on Iraq.
The protesters were responding to a call by the UK anti-war movement for workers and students to stage a mass walkout from offices, schools and colleges.
Describing the outbreak of hostilities as a "day of shame", the Stop the War Coalition said that it hoped to draw on the public feeling that saw more than 1 million people take to the streets of London last month.
Stop the War spokesman Andrew Burgin said: "We call upon the people of Britain to act today in support of peace by walking out from work, school or college to join protest meetings and peace demonstrations in their community against this unjust war."
But what began as a peaceful demonstration grew more heated as 100 youngsters staged a sit-in in front of the Houses of Parliament, blocking traffic.
A further 60 lay down on the ground, refusing police pleas to disperse, and were forcibly moved, some with several officers dragging them away. Fellow protesters stood behind them chanting "Leave the kids alone!" and "Stop the war!"
As protesters tried to force their way through metal barriers surrounding the square, they were pushed back by cordons of police.
Some demonstrators hurled plastic bottles, stones and coins at police, and one officer was seen punching a protester in the face.
Flordete Iveson, 18, who attends Latimer School in Edmonton, north London, said: "We don't want our name associated with this war. Our government doesn't care what we think. I don't think I have a right to speak out against the war unless I'm here to protest."
In Cambridge, around 300 demonstrators stopped traffic during a sit-down protest and formed a "ring of peace" around market stalls.
Sara Payne, the co-chairman of Campeace, who was with her two-year-old granddaughter Dorothy, said: "We have consistently opposed what we see as this illegal attack on Iraq: it does not have the authority of the UN.
"The UN was set up to protect future generations from the scourge of war. Tony Blair is a war criminal."
The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament also urged Britons to protest against the "illegal, immoral war". CND called on campaigners to gather outside Downing Street at 6pm with whistles and drums, and to make as much noise as possible. The group also encouraged British soldiers to disobey orders and refrain from entering combat.
CND chairman Carol Naughton said: "Crimes against humanity will be perpetrated in this bloody war.
"We will support any members of the military who refuse to carry out an order that would cause death or suffering to civilians. That is their individual right and I hope they will use it."
The Muslim Council of Britain, which fears that military action against Saddam Hussein will sour relations between Britain and Muslim countries, condemned the outbreak of war and said it was a "black day in our history".
A statement from five aid agencies in Britain called for coalition forces to take "all possible precautions" to avoid civilian casualties in Iraq, and demanded extra funding to rebuild the country after war.
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