Genoa summit: Anti-aircraft guns and 150,000 protesters await world's leaders

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The Independent Online

Five dummy bodies with their hands bound behind their backs dangled limply from a crane in a central piazza in Genoa as a greeting to world leaders who will arrive on Friday morning for what may be their last Group of Eight summit.

Five dummy bodies with their hands bound behind their backs dangled limply from a crane in a central piazza in Genoa as a greeting to world leaders who will arrive on Friday morning for what may be their last Group of Eight summit.

In a city deserted by its 900,000 inhabitants and made surreal by a military presence not seen since World War Two, it hardly seemed to matter that the protest was organised by Iranian dissidents and was unrelated to fair trade, debt relief or the spread of AIDS.

This northern Italian port, with its history of insurrections and trading wealth, has become an international stage and also, possibly, a battlefield.

Today the big boys will step into the spotlight: the leaders of the world's seven richest nations plus Russia, arriving in private planes and being escorted at high speed to the £200m luxury liner where most will lodge for their own safety.

The players until now have been the police – 18,000 in all, from carabinieri in spanking new uniforms to grey suited Guardia di Finanza – and the protesters, expected to number up 150,000, who yesterday piled off special trains and buses carrying sleeping bags, dogs, plastic shields and banners.

In a climate of trepidation, the Italians have imposed unprecedented security measures at immense cost. Anti aircraft missiles have been installed at the airport, roads and train stations have been closed and the Red Zone surrounding the summit venue is off limits.

All the city's hotels have been commandeered for delegations and the press.

The pressure of the anti global protesters has prevented Genoa showing off its new splendour, the result of a £60m facelift. The gala dinners, shopping trips, and photo opportunity walkabouts of past summits have been cancelled for fear of disturbances.

The leaders will move between the magnificent Ducal Palace with its frescoed ceilings and sumptuous furniture and the Port Authority building, in bullet-proofed cavalcades.

Determined to disrupt or at least distract attention from the G8 leaders hardline, anti-globalisation movements were yesterday finalising tactics. Protesters in Che Guevara T-shirts, fatigues, and pink dreadlocks rehearsed attempts to break down the steel grates surrounding the Red Zone. Luca Casarini, media-savvy leader of the Tute Bianche (White Overalls) at HQ at the Carlini stadium, admitted that violence was probably inevitable.

"There will be 10,000 of us, unarmed, using our bodies as weapons against guns and batons. We will push until those infernal barriers around Genoa come down and the Empire will know it is a little weaker" he said.

Some world leaders have expressed impatience with the protests that have dogged a string of international gatherings over the past 19 months.

"We are seeing a worrying trend where the only way some people think they can make a point and get it across is through violence ... in a way that is profoundly undemocratic," Tony Blair said yesterday.

The special police squad, the Digos, are most fearful of the so-called Black Block, and they are not alone.

"I saw those guys in action at Gothenburg and Salzburg and they are mean. They don't publicise what they do, they don't plan in any great detail, but move in small numbers, that's their strength" said Mike, an Austrian protester. "I fear that this will end in blood."

But for what? Romano Prodi, the European Commission president, described G8 summits as an "extravagant and excessive machine". He said: "This kind of seige atmosphere can hardly help us tackle humanity's greatest and most widespread tragedies such as poverty and disease."

When the meeting ends on Sunday, we can expect a communique, agreed by officials, or "sherpas", days in advance.

Andrew Pendleton, a spokesman for Christian Aid predicted: "If you compare last year's communique from Okinawa with this year's, you'll probably find the biggest difference is in the syntax".

Since presidents Giscard d'Estaing and Gerald Ford rubbed shoulders at the inaugural G7 meeting at Rambouillet in 1976, this has been one of the most elusive as well as elite gatherings, its trademark the "informal fireside chat" rather than action plans.

This weekend's G8 will finish with a series of press conferences all carefully honed to produce messages to appeal to national audiences. As far as the official agenda is concerned the main focus will be on debt relief and the launch of a $1.5bn global fund to combat Aids and other serious diseases, a pre-agreed plan.

But even these have been greeted with cynicism rather than enthusiasm by many campaigners. Mr Pendleton said: "I've lost count of the number of times it has been announced already."

But while the sight of protesters besieging summits underlines the growing distance between the political elite and the citizenry, divisions are growing in the ranks of protesters themselves with many worried that the increasing violence is counter-productive in terms of public sympathy.

The EU has already decided to move all its summits, gradually, to Brussels. Meanwhile, the next attempt to agree a new trade round by the World Trade Organisation will take place in Qatar – where even the boldest protesters will struggle to make their voices heard.