WTO in Seattle: Mystery of the missing masters of free trade The incredible disappearing champions of

THE WORLD Trade Organisation meeting was supposed to be a great celebration of free trade. But with mass demonstrations going on in the Seattle streets and even President Bill Clinton saying he understood the protesters' concerns about the dark side of global capital, free traders were tough to find this week.

Thanks to international giants such as Boeing and Microsoft, as well as outfits including Starbucks coffee and the online retailer amazon.com, Seattle is more dependent on global commerce for its prosperity than any other US city.

But the chief executive officers who first lobbied to bring the WTO to the Pacific Northwest were almost invisible. Bill Gates, the Microsoft chairman, was on the city's organising committee and wrote an enthusiastic pro-trade piece in The New York Times last week. The only visible sign of him during the meetings this week, however, was on a crude poster displayed at city bus stops with the slogan "Big Brother Is Watching You".

While Boeing aircraft mechanics made a prominent splash at the anti-WTO march on Tuesday, the company's chief executive officer, Phil Condit, made only the most general of remarks in defence of his company's global business in an interview with a local newspaper. "There is a fundamental misunderstanding that goes around the idea that profit is a dirty word," he said.

Admittedly, many of the opportunities the free-traders might have had to put their point across were lost amid the mayhem of the street protests and the clouds of tear gas that choked the centre of Seattle. Many official galas and dinners were cancelled, either because they were deemed too provocative or because holding them became too much trouble.

There was one event at which free-traders could voice their disagreement with the protesters - a rally held at the large indoor Mercer Arena next to Seattle's landmark Space Needle on the other side of town from the WTO meeting.

The event's hosts, a coalition of Republicans and conservative Christians calling itself "Working Families for Free Trade", felt they could provide an important counter-balance to the radical anti-capitalist voices being heard on the streets. But despite weeks of publicity the arena remained embarrassingly empty.

The 10 organisers were joined by 10 journalists, no more than 20 supporters and a noisy counter-demonstration outside the venue's front doors, organised by a rival group of right-wing Christians, that outnumbered the lot of them.