Pro-hunting hecklers shout down PM's address

Pro-hunters disrupted Tony Blair's speech from the conference floor yesterday while up to 10,000 fellow demonstrators staged a massive show of defiance on the streets of Brighton.

Pro-hunters disrupted Tony Blair's speech from the conference floor yesterday while up to 10,000 fellow demonstrators staged a massive show of defiance on the streets of Brighton.

The Prime Minister's speech was interrupted for several minutes as four protesters shouted abuse about the Government's move to outlaw hunting from 2006. They were hustled out of the Brighton Centre, raising questions about security checks faced by conference delegates. Last night, two had been released from police custody while a third was still being held.

Their protest followed an earlier disruption when an anti-war protester shouted at Mr Blair that he "had blood on his hands" just seconds into the speech.

Hector Christie, a farmer well known for his vigorous opposition to the Government's culling policy during the foot-and-mouth crisis, shouted: "I'm protesting because of the illegal war in Iraq. Tens of thousands of people are being killed unnecessarily." He was bundled away to boos from delegates.

Outside the conference complex, 600 riot police guarded the building as thousands of pro-hunt demonstrators thronged Brighton's seafront.

Amid growing tension, police were forced to set up a cordon to keep the country sports campaigners apart from rival anti-hunt demonstrators. There were minor scuffles - including a row between protesters and Sir Gerald Kaufman, the Labour MP who is a vehement opponent of hunting - and eggs were thrown at delegates.

But the raucous protest, in which demonstrators with 1,000 dogs blew whistles, set off fire crackers, banged placards and rang bells, passed off peacefully. Watched by police in boats, hundreds spilled on to the beach, with several young women dressed as bunny girls stripping off and running into the sea for the cameras.

Organisers pointed out that the number of marchers, which they estimated at 8,000 to 10,000, far outstripped the size of Mr Blair's audience within the conference hall.

Sam Butler, chairman of the Countryside Alliance Campaigning for Hunting, told the crowd: "These people will have to listen or they will pay the ultimate electoral price."

The carcasses of a horse and two calves were found dumped in Brighton shortly before the rally. Countryside Alliance banners were found beside the bodies of the calves, but the group later said that it was not responsible. Two men were later arrested in connection with the incident.

The anti-hunt demonstrators staged their protest in the conference hall when Mr Blair was about half an hour into his speech. Three men and a woman stood up, started shouting and set off rape alarms on the balcony overlooking the conference floor. They were hustled out by stewards and police and Labour officials began an immediate investigation.

One, Tom Leek, of Ledbury, Herefordshire, said later that he had only joined the party two days ago. He said: "It's beholden on everybody to fight this kind of legislation. What's next? If they are going to base laws on this kind of prejudice how can we rest in our beds?"

James Murray Wells, from Gloucestershire, said: "We wanted to protest about the rape of the countryside and the rape of democracy."

However, there was little sign last night that the Government, which is preparing to use the Parliament Act to force a hunting ban into law if the Lords reject the Bill, was in a mood to bow to the protests. A senior cabinet minister said: "This train is going to reach its destination; it cannot be stopped." And Peter Hain, the Commons leader, said the Countryside Alliance should realise that "the country is not with them" on the hunting issue.

Last night police in Brighton said that they had arrested a total of 13 people after the demonstrations.

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