Clinton flies in to `fortress' Seattle as protesters reclaim the streets

ANGRY PROTESTERS, riot police and National Guardsmen with armoured cars returned to the streets of Fortress Seattle yesterday, prepared for more violent confrontations as President Bill Clinton arrived on a mission to salvage the World Trade Organisation's summit.

Several hundred demonstrators defied a no-protest order in a wide swath of downtown around the Convention Center and the main hotels housing the WTO delegates, clamouring for the right to express their opposition to the WTO. For two hours, police scooped up protesters and dragged them feet first into waiting city buses which whisked them away to detention centres.

After more than 200 arrests, however, the lines of heavily armed police retreated, allowing the marchers to move along some of Seattle's main shopping streets.

In remarks published ahead of his official WTO speech, Mr Clinton said he understood the frustrations and aspirations of the demonstrators, but deplored the behaviour of those who used violence. "I regret very much that a few people have given the protesters a bad name because I think that the fact that the protesters are there, were it not for those stopping meetings, stopping movements and not being peaceful, will be a positive."

Some 68 people were arrested on Tuesday as tens of thousands of demonstrators sought to prevent the WTO meeting from starting. Wreckers smashed windows and looted stores downtown, prompting the police to clear the streets with volleys of tear gas. The clashes lasted late into the night despite the imposition of an emergency curfew and a state of civil emergency.

With much of downtown Seattle boarded up and under a state of virtual siege yesterday, the police switched tactics to provide a more muscular presence. An initial group of protesters who gathered at a park near the Westin Hotel, where President Clinton was staying, had their banners and backpacks confiscated and were rounded up and arrested. One hotel and a road intersection were also briefly closed off following bomb scares.

"Clearly the approach we took yesterday did not work," the city's assistant police chief, Ed Joiner, told an early morning briefing. Seattle's mayor, Paul Schell, said he felt embarrassment at the way the opening day had gone and described himself as "wounded" by the outbursts of violence in a famously placid city.

Some 200 National Guardsmen were drafted in as reinforcements, and their armoured personnel carriers took up positions around downtown. Mr Joiner said any demonstrator entering the no-protest zone would be arrested, but that policy was later relaxed as protesters accused authorities of violating their rights. "I didn't lift a finger against the police," said a man from Olympia, 60 miles south of Seattle. "This is a peaceful, non-violent demonstration."

Some of the masked men in black outfits who caused the trouble on Tuesday tried to stop and vandalise cars at a downtown intersection, but they were quickly dispersed. The protests were otherwise peaceful. "Hey hey, ho ho, the WTO must go!" the anti-WTO contingent chanted.

Their activities did not block the WTO meeting from proceeding, however. Steven Byers, the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, claimed that the demonstrations had helped bring the countries together. "It makes it more likely that at the end of the week there will be an agreement reached," he said. Mr Byers and members of the British delegation were slightly affected by tear gas but others were much worse off.

Some delegates were attacked by demonstrators and ironically those representing developing countries received the worst treatment. The American and European delegations were secure in central and heavily defended hotels, so the protests sharpened the sense of division between rich and poor. Officials from poor countries like India did not enjoy being lectured about poverty by middle-class white students.

Many delegations were furious at the hapless performance of the Seattle police which prevented them from attending key events.