THE BIRMINGHAM SUMMIT: 50,000 join hands for world's poor

CHURCH bells rang, whistles blew and some 50,000 people clasped hands yesterday in the biggest display of British solidarity with the poorest countries of the world since Live Aid. The culmination of two years of planning, the seven-mile human chain around the G8 summit site in Birmingham was designed to force the question of Third World debt onto the agenda.

From old to young, the people, many of whom had never demonstrated before, joined hands in a seven-mile chain, sometimes six deep, to call for the cancellation of Third World debt to mark the year 2000. "We shall overcome," they sang and Bob Marley's "Redemption Song": "Won't you help to sing these songs of freedom?".

Organised by the Jubilee 2000 coalition of churches, aid agencies and charities, the human chain had been asked to wear chains - 100,000 lapel badges of tiny links have been sold in the last two weeks - or the colour red. With matching red placards pleading "Break the chains of debt", it was impossible to miss them. Clare Short, the International Development Secretary, arrived at St Philip's Cathedral just in time to link hands with members of the coalition before receiving boxes of petitions containing 1.5 million signatures.

"I think what you are achieving today is more than putting pressure on the leadership of the G8 to cancel debt, however important that is," she told the crowd. "This is a declaration of the end of selfishness and greed of the Eighties. Today we have shown that idealism is alive and well in politics."

Earlier, the Jubilee 2000 Coalition, the organisers of the protest, had laughed that the arrival of their mainly elderly supporters from Middle England had sent the G8 leaders fleeing into private talks outside the city. But it soon emerged that the turnout was to be acknowledged by the world leaders after all. At the last moment, Tony Blair announced he would meet the Jubilee 2000 leaders later in the afternoon.

Despite the impact of the protest, however, the G8 nations rejected the campaigners' demand for an end to debt, agreeing a package of much less ambitious objectives. They include measures to get 20 eligible countries into a debt relief programme by the end of the decade, and new plans for countries which have suffered conflicts. Ann Pettifor, director of Jubilee 2000 said: "Far from listening to the 50,000 people gathered here in Birmingham this statement shows that the G8 are divided and cannot reach agreement on essential help for poor countries."

Many who joined the protest were undeterred by the politicians' attitude. Merle Tshiamalenge, 61, and her sister Molly Hanson, 71, had come from Kettering. Mrs Tshiamalenge, who worked as a missionary in Africa, said: "The dictator who was in charge when I was there is dead but the debt is still there. I believe they deserve a fresh start." Mrs Hanson said she was "just a very ordinary person" who never normally protested but felt very strongly it was wrong. "I worked with handicapped children all my life and I can't bear to see children that are so ill and can't even get the basic things in life."

Ann Pettifor said yesterday was just the start and the fight would go on. The next plan is to focus on Germany, which has opposed moves on debt relief. Helmut Kohl has vowed to fight this year's election as a world leader. "We are going to question his role as a world statesman," she said. And the human chains will continue. "I think you will find human chains popping up wherever finance ministers and governments meet. We are saying to the hard-hearted men of money that we want a new beginning."

TWO-NIL for the French-flavoured Arsenal at Wembley - and one-up for Jacques Chirac over Tony Blair at the Birmingham G8 summit last night.

Before the game started, Toon Army member Mr Blair sent a good luck note to the Newcastle players. The French President couldn't resist a counterattack.

Within minutes of the final whistle, Mr Chirac sent a congratulatory letter to Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger. Compliments to the whole team, the President continued, with a special mention for its garde tricolor of Emmanuel Petit, Patrick Vieira and Nicolas Anelka.

A new summit split, then? Beaming French officials were not denying it.