Riot police called out in London as protest ends in skirmishes

Riot police were dispatched to the Israeli embassy in London last night as a day of protests across Europe degenerated into ugly skirmishes.

In London Israeli flags were set ablaze and surging crowds were penned back by police with shields and batons. Some protesters were in tears, claiming they were being stopped from leaving peacefully, and organisers said they would complain about police heavy-handedness. Others, growing more aggressive as news of Israel's ground invasion spread, threw missiles while police tried to drive them back. Late into the evening, several hundred were still staring down officers outside the embassy.

The London ambulance service said it had helped one man with a head injury and others with minor bruises after sending a team of 25 to the scene.

Tens of thousands initially took to the streets, even as Israeli forces were firing shells from the border of Gaza. In London, where the largest rally was held, Trafalgar Square turned to a sea of black, white, red and green – Palestinian national colours – as what organisers claimed were up to 55,000 people showed up in the largest British demonstration for the Palestinian cause. Police claimed the size of the protest was far lower.

In the crowd was the singer Annie Lennox, the comedian Alexei Sayle, Tony Benn and George Galloway. Lennox told the crowd: "We are looking at a huge human rights tragedy in front of us. The idea of an air assault combined with a ground war in such a tightly packed area as Gaza is unimaginable. It will be a bloodbath. Hopefully now we will see dialogue, dialogue, dialogue."

The thrust of the protest was aimed at the British government's inaction over the Israeli attacks on Gaza, as the onslaught started its second week. One marcher, Omar Lemrini, 45, helped to carry a fake coffin covered in images of dead civilians and children. "This is the second Holocaust," he said. "It's a question of conscience now."

Some 30 organisations, including the British Muslim Initiative, the Stop the War Coalition and the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, joined forces for the protest. Hemmed in by police, the marchers resorted to the symbolic throwing of shoes into Downing Street. Hundreds of old shoes were hurled over barriers and gates to represent the Palestinian lives lost in the bombing. The gesture echoed the protest by Iraqi journalist Muntadar al-Zaidi, who threw his shoes at President Bush last month in protest at US "war crimes".

David Carr, 45, a nurse, contorted his face in fury as he picked up his battered brown shoe and tossed it over the railings: "I helped search for the people who were injured in the London bomb blast, so I know what it means," he said. Two people broke through the police barrier to make a dash for Downing Street.

The protests were mirrored elsewhere with marches in France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Spain, Holland and Turkey. In Edinburgh and Glasgow, around 1,000 were involved in marches which police said passed peacefully. In Paris, 20,000 demonstrators descended on the city centre chanting "Israeli murder".

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