Red alert as protesters target town and country

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The Independent Online

Demo fever is rippling through the UK as groups as diverse as anarchists, truckers and agricultural workers plan protests and "direct action" in weeks to come.

Demo fever is rippling through the UK as groups as diverse as anarchists, truckers and agricultural workers plan protests and "direct action" in weeks to come.

Police yesterday mounted the biggest security operation seen in London for 30 years in preparation for "anti-capitalist" demonstrations today and Monday. Meanwhile, farmers and hauliers are joining forces for a six-day nationwide protest in June that could bring the country to a standstill.

More than 25,000 officers are on duty in anticipation of violence and vandalism similar to last June when police arrested 101 people following protests in the City. Security was particularly stringent at the Millennium Dome which is thought to be one possible target.

A core of between 200 to 300 protesters have flown from the US to London to take part. They include veterans of the street battles that marked the WTO summit in Seattle last year as well as the World Bank protests in Washington this month where 1,300 activists were arrested.

Tomorrow up to 10,000 people are expected to attend the "Guerrilla Gardening Action" organised by Reclaim the Streets, bringing seeds and earth to Parliament Square to "turn designer trainers into plant pots" and 'traffic cones into hanging baskets".

"This is not about violence," said Andy Yates, one of the demonstration organisers, last night. "There is a rising tide of people questioning capitalism and looking for an alternative."

But police have criticised the protesters for failing to co-operate with them. Deputy Assistant Commissioner Mike Todd said: "We are well aware of the tactics that have been used in Washington and Seattle. It would not surprise me if they planned to use those tactics here."

Ken Livingstone, who has made clear his sympathies with the movement's aspirations in the past, said he was opposed to violence. "Whilst I'm sure a lot of the people going on Monday are planning to have a peaceful demonstration, it has become quite clear to police intelligence that there is a small core who will try and cause violence and people will get hurt in that."

Meanwhile, farmers and hauliers throughout the country are preparing for what the organisers predict will be the "mother of all convoys". A fleet of trucks will assemble in Edinburgh before setting off for London, taking a route designed for maximum traffic chaos before reaching Downing Street on Midsummer's Day.

Up to 5,000 HGVs are expected to arrive in Scotland on 18 June. They will be joined along the way by farmers, agricultural workers and hauliers.

The convoy has been organised by two newly formed groups, Farmers for Action (FFA) and the Hauliers and Farmers Association (HFA), set up 10 weeks ago in response to the deepening farming crisis.

Hauliers, faced with high fuel and vehicle costs, have seen a dramatic fall-off in business because of the collapse of a farming industry which was once their mainstay.

Despite recent aid packages, there seems little immediate prospect of an improvement. The beef sector has been in crisis since March 1996 when the Government admitted that "mad cow disease", or BSE, could be transmitted to people. The EU at once banned British beef and a £200m export market disappeared overnight.

Beef farmers have struggled to cope as millions of cattle have been slaughtered, with compensation covering only a fraction of their former price.

The pig industry has been hit even harder, and some 1,500 farmers have been forced to leave the business. Their troubles have been caused by the high pound, but also by the abandonment of stalls and tethers as ways of keeping pigs, on animal welfare grounds. The change has added £90m to production costs and the rest of Europe, which continues to use old methods, can undercut the cost of British bacon, pork and ham.

The Government's latest £203m agricultural aid package is too late for farmers affected by the crisis, according to Andrew Spence, a cattle and sheep farmer in Consett, County Durham. He can speak with authority from both the transport and farming perspective. He was forced to close down his haulier business in 1996, and move with his family from his five-bedroomed farmhouse to an ex-council house. He turned to his parents' farm for alternative work.

"Direct action is the only way to get our message across to the public, the supermarkets and the Government," he says. "We are so desperate, if we can change public buying trends by taking to the roads, we will. Without this mass protest the future looks very bleak."

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