Meetings of the world's leaders will never be the same again

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The Independent Online

In the chaos and confusion of Genoa's riots last night one thing was clear: an international summit has been marred by death and meetings of the world's most powerful leaders will never be the same again.

In the chaos and confusion of Genoa's riots last night one thing was clear: an international summit has been marred by death and meetings of the world's most powerful leaders will never be the same again.

After the battle of Seattle, the siege of Nice and the riots of Gothenburg, the city of Genoa got its taste of violent protest when the tide of demonstration produced the result the Italian authorities feared most: a killing on the streets.

Although security has been stepped up at international gatherings in the past two years Genoa proved to be the most surreal so far.

Inside the fenced-off "red zone" of the ancient port city, the world's most powerful men arrived in motorcades of stretch limousines which purred along deserted streets. To allow pictures of the Italian Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, greeting them to be beamed uninterrupted around the world, an extraordinary security operation had been mounted. Much of the city was sealed off, while some of the rest became a stage for running battles.

Most demonstrators came to Genoa to make a peaceful protest but thousands streamed into the city ­ among them were the infamous, hooded Black Block who brought havoc to the European Union's Gothenburg summit in June. As in Sweden, only one incident was needed to turn peaceful, even festive, protest into violence running over several hours, and that came only hours after George Bush and Tony Blair swept into town.

Neither leader can have imagined that the gathering would be marred so quickly and so tragically.

When protesters rampaged through the streets of Gothenburg, they exposed a police force lamentably prepared, one which had no tear gas and had consigned its only water canon to a museum. With nothing between batons and pistols, the Swedish police shot and seriously wounded one protester.

Italy's national paramilitary police force, the Carabinieri, arrived with every piece of modern crowd control from tanks to tear gas masks.

As the summit began the world's leaders professed their determination not to be intimidated but to carry on meeting. Mr Blair insisted that "the issues we are discussing are, in fact, the very issues that some of those people say they are protesting about".

But that was before the news arrived of the death, after which the Prime Minister's spokesman adopted a different tone, arguing that it is "always a source of regret if anyone loses their life. We have always defended people's right to legitimate and peaceful protest, but when there is violent protest people can get hurt."

Last night there was no sign that the gathering will be curtailed and every indication that, when the biggest protest takes place today, the G8 leaders will carry on talking behind the barricades. But in the longer term the West's leaders look likely to retreat further behind steel and concrete barriers.

The EU is already planning to move summits, gradually, to Brussels and one idea is to build an ultra-secure complex outside the city centre.

As one diplomat put it yesterday: "I have no doubt that, in future, in the choice of locations security will be a massive factor."

The next World Trade Organisation meeting is due to take place in Qatar, beyond the reach of the most fervent of the balaclava-wearing protesters.

Other ideas mooted include the use of venues well outside cities or even military bases.

But there are difficulties with such a response ­ dangers that have led mainstream protest groups to reject summit violence.

For one thing it makes leaders' discussions more remote from public pressure of the type which protesters exerted at the G8 summit in Birmingham in 1998. Then around 100,000 people demonstrated peacefully to highlight the importance of debt relief, putting the issue firmly on the agenda.

Moreover, erecting ever- higher fences behind which to meet only reinforces the politicians' remoteness from the people.

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