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U.K.: Istanbul Attacks Overshadow Final Day Of Bush's State Visit To Britain

  • Jan Jun

London, 21 November 2003 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. President George W. Bush and his wife, Laura, left Buckingham Palace in London today and arrived in northeastern England, where British Prime Minister Tony Blair is giving them a tour of his home constituency.

Bush -- on the last day of his state visit to Britain -- is not scheduled to deliver any major speeches, in contrast to his past two days in London, which have been filled with official ceremony and a number of public protests.

Today's visit to the small town of Sedgefield, 400 kilometers north of London, is being billed as a chance for the Bushes to relax and see a corner of "real-life" Britain. A few hundred anti-Bush demonstrators spoiled the serene setting, however.

British commentators note that Blair's humble, four-bedroom Victorian house in a place called Trimdon Colliery is a far cry from Bush's 650-hectare ranch in Texas. The small town, however, features 14 pubs, an ancient church, and a racecourse, and Bush will be shown around some of these local landmarks. A highlight will be a tour of the nearby ancestral home of first U.S. President George Washington.

Security, as it has been throughout Bush's visit, is unusually tight, especially after yesterday's terrorist bombings in Istanbul. The attacks on the British consulate and the London-based HSBC bank killed at least 27 people, including a top British diplomat, but have, if anything, appeared to strengthen the resolve of the two leaders in the war against terrorism.

Blair emphasized at a joint press conference yesterday: "I can assure you of one thing: that when something like this happens today, our response is not to flinch or give way or concede one inch."

He further explained that, within this context, "Iraq is even more important today" because the terrorists are intent "on dividing people -- the Arab world and the Western world and Muslim world and Christian world and other religions."

"Their case is that we are in Iraq to suppress Muslims, steal their oil, to spoil the country. We know you know that all those things are lies. They know, therefore, that if we manage to get Iraq on its feet as a stable, prosperous, democratic country, the blow we strike is not just one for the Iraqi people -- it is the end of that propaganda, and that's why they are fighting us," Blair added.

Blair's remarks did little to quell the passion of the tens of thousands of protesters who gathered yesterday in central London to demonstrate against Bush, Blair, and the U.S.-led war in Iraq. Police estimated the crowd at 70,000-100,000.

It was apparently the largest-ever weekday London protest, and it was as peaceful as it was colorful. Students and young families with children, nuclear activists, Palestinian supporters, anarchists, and socialists all came and marched. Police report only 53 arrests for "minor offenses" since the evening of 18 November.

Sixty-year-old Hazel Briggs was typical of the marchers: "I came along to see who would be demonstrating, because I hoped there would be lots of people like me, and not just youngsters who tend to speak before they think. I think it is a very mixed crowd, and I shall join it when the time comes."

The protester carried placards with slogans like "Peace on Earth," "Disarmament Now," or "Clean Air For Everyone." Others called Bush and Blair "butchers," "imperialists," or "war criminals." Toward the end of the rally, a large effigy of Bush was toppled in central Trafalgar Square, recalling the felling of statues of ousted Iraqi President Saddam Hussein in Baghdad in April.

Bush, however, said he welcomed the chance for the demonstrators to make their case: "People in Baghdad, for example, weren't allowed to do this up until recent history. They are not spending a lot of time in North Korea protesting the current leadership. Freedom is a wonderful thing, and I respect that. I fully understand people don't agree with war. But I hope they agree with peace, and freedom, and liberty."

Meanwhile, British Home Secretary David Blunkett met with security chiefs about the possible threat of an Al-Qaeda attack in Britain. The country remains on the second-highest terror alert -- six on a seven-point scale. Armed police have appeared in yet more places in London -- even guarding major banks and offices.

The attacks in Istanbul and the high state of alert in Britain overshadowed the Bush visit and the antiwar protests on the front pages of the major daily newspapers today, with "The Times" saying "news of the attack blew away all the light dramas of President Bush's trip which had preoccupied the country."