G8 wrestle with world in turmoil

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THE world's major powers last night sought to contain separate theatres of turmoil in South Asia, trying to brake the nuclear arms race on the Indian sub-continent, and pleading for dialogue and reform to prevent the worst in riot-torn Indonesia.

But, as the leaders of the G8 nations go into private talks on the global economy today, 50,000 people descend on Birmingham to force them to change their agenda. The human chain, up to five deep, will ring the centre of the city as campaigners in a coalition of aid agencies and charities demand a one-off cancellation of Third World debt.

Clare Short, International Development Secretary, will accept petitions with 1.5 million signatures of support and deliver them to Weston Hall, Shropshire, where the leaders will be holding secret talks.

Last night India seemed likely to escape further punishment after sanctions imposed by the US, and international condemnation of its series of five nuclear tests this week. Will there be a G8 package of sanctions? "No," Tony Blair's spokesman said.

Earlier, President Bill Clinton, who was legally obliged to take immediate action suspending aid, loans and credit guarantees, had demanded "a clear and unambiguous message". But only Japan and Canada were inclined to go as far as Washington. Russia, India's traditional ally from Cold War days, opposed sanctions, and France, like Britain, believes they will only make more distant the day when India signs up to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. At the same time, the G8 members - France, Germany, Italy, Canada, the US, Britain, Russia and Japan - leant heavily on Pakistan, where US officials were yesterday seeking to prevent retaliatory tests.

But neither economic carrots nor the stick of sanctions seemed likely to deflect Pakistan from tests of its own.

Hardly less worrying now, however, is the crisis in Indonesia. Catching the mood here, President Clinton appealed to the Indonesian government for restraint, and a speedy start on moves towards democracy.

Giving the people a real voice, he said, "can make a real contribution to restoring political order and stability." But that appeal too could fall on deaf ears. The leaders also issued separate statements on Kosovo and the Middle East.

Though shorn of parallel meetings of finance and foreign ministers, the summit did offer the novelty of full participation for the first time by Russia. At yesterday's first European Union-Russia summit, attended by a comparatively well-looking President Boris Yeltsin, the EU formally endorsed Russia as a market economy, opening the way to closer economic ties with Moscow.

The leaders will spend today at Weston Park for a retreat which will focus on debt relief for the poorest countries, cross-border and computer crime, and securing employment in the new era of globalisation.

They will also discuss the perils of the millennium bug, which threatens the world's computer systems in 2000.

But, despite the glamour and power wielded by G8 leaders, increasing attention was focused yesterday on the "People's summit" organised by the alternative economic think-tank the New Economic Foundation - a few hundred yards from the main conference venue. Claiming to want to challenge the orthodoxies of the G8 summit, Ed Mayo, the foundation's director, said their aim was "to develop practical policy initiatives for a just and sustainable global economy."