Anti-war protesters stage sit-in to condemn military action and press for further aid

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Hundreds of peace marchers, dressed in black and seemingly impervious to torrential rain, staged a sombre sit-down protest yards from Downing Street yesterday to demonstrate against the attacks on Afghanistan.

Police diverted traffic and allowed the demonstration to proceed without making any arrests. During the march from Temple Place to Whitehall, children walked alongside adults wearing black clothing beneath their waterproofs and carrying individual white flowers to symbolise peace.

The peace group Justice Not Vengeance had organised the protest, in collaboration with CND, the Green Party, Campaign Against Arms Trade, Active Resistance to the Roots of War (Arrow) and the Catholic peace organisation Pax Christi to express their opposition to British and American military action.

Three speakers, Margaret Wright of the Green Party, Pat Gaffney from Pax Christi and Kate Hudson of CND rallied the crowd, which included Middle Eastern and Pakistani pro-testers, by reiterating the reasons for the march.

An estimated 500-strong procession walked along the Embankment to the Strand, Trafalagar Square and Whitehall in dignified silence, but could not reach Downing Street because police blocked their route. Instead, a slightly smaller congregation of 250 sat outside the Ministry of Defence, where protesters made anti-war statements on an open microphone and held banners, emblazoned with statements such as "End Suffering" and "Food not Bombs".

The crowd left after an hour and a half to place their flowers at the Cenotaph and hold a minute's silence to commemorate those who had died on 11 September and in Afghanistan.

Milan Rai, a member of Arrow and a long-standing peace protester, made a final speech before the crowd dispersed in which he stressed the overriding need for an increase in humanitarian aid for thousands of displaced Afghans.

Afterwards he said: "This sit-down sent a clear message out to the Government, that even in the most atrocious weather, hundreds of people are committed enough to opposing the war to get involved in this act of civil disobedience."

Robin Oakley, a spokesman for Justice Not Vengeance, who attended the sit-down, felt the symbolic peace protest had been a success despite unrelenting rain and he said that similar marches would be planned for the near future.

"It was an opportunity to express how strongly people felt and that they are willing to put their liberty on the line. We made it clear that we condemn the attacks on America but equally, we condemn the military force being used in revenge in Afghanistan.

"America has not followed Article 33 of the UN Charter, which calls for every non- military action to be applied before military action is taken. We do not feel this has been followed by America though the Taliban has offered negotiation on numerous occasions."

Spencer Fitzgibbon, a member of the National Executive of the Green Party, supported the promise of further sit-down protests.

The protest was described as peaceful by the Metropolitan Police and no arrests were made despite the heavy security presence.