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NATO: Number Of Protesters Smaller Than Expected

Fearing a repeat of the protest violence two years ago at the International Monetary Fund meeting, police in the Czech Republic have prepared for the worst at this week's NATO summit. Some 12,000 security troops are patrolling the streets of the Czech capital, Prague. But early indications are that the numbers of demonstrators are smaller than expected.

Prague, 21 November 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Anti-NATO demonstrations in the streets of Prague have failed, so far, to gather the large numbers of people -- or generate the vandalism and street violence -- predicted by Czech authorities.

Organizers of the street protests say today's gatherings will be their "largest and loudest." But if two separate demonstrations in the city yesterday are any indication, it will be difficult for today's events to gather much more than a thousand protesters.

Fearing a repeat of the vandalism and violent clashes seen during the IMF and World Bank meetings in Prague two years ago, Czech authorities are prepared for as many as 12,000 anti-NATO demonstrators on the streets this week.

More than 12,000 security troops have been deployed in three different parts of the city where NATO leaders are meeting. Border crossings have been tightened to stop large groups of anti-NATO demonstrators from entering the country.

Yesterday's protests in Prague suggest that security forces now outnumber the demonstrators by more than 10 to one.

"You attack Iraq -- we fight back. You attack Iraq -- we fight back. You attack Iraq -- we fight back. You attack Iraq -- we fight back," shouted demonstrators yesterday.

Italian communists are promising to "fight back" against any U.S.-led war on Iraq. Their presence at one of the main protests yesterday -- a gathering of some 300 leftists in Prague's Old Town Square -- shows that members of some of the more radical fringe groups in Prague two years ago have returned.

But it appears that few of the communists and leftists at the afternoon protest joined a demonstration called by anarchists last night near a formal dinner for NATO foreign ministers.

At its peak, about 500 people attended the anarchist gathering, which included handouts of free food and banners declaring "Food Not Bombs."

The evening protest was loud but peaceful, with the main group of demonstrators never coming closer than 50 meters from the front-line police barricades around the state dinner.

Earlier yesterday, Czech authorities shut down a "convergence center" used by activists to try to bring together the small groups of protesters that have managed to slip across the border and make it to Prague. The closure of the activists' convergence center has reduced their coordinating abilities to a few websites and word-of-mouth instructions on where to meet.

And, although four gathering places for demonstrations have received legal permits from authorities, it appears most demonstrators are meeting at the authorized site that is closest to Prague's Congress Center, where the main summit events are taking place.

Some of the more radical protesters in Prague are saying publicly that they will not try to break through the police barricades to storm the Congress Center today.

But RFE/RL's correspondent attended a meeting earlier this week in which anarchists and other activists reviewed films detailing the tactics used by both police and the antiglobalization demonstrators in Prague two years ago.

What is absent from this week's protests are the more mainstream antiglobalization groups that had swelled the ranks of the demonstrations in Prague two years ago. Without a crowd of thousands to fall back into, it appears the overwhelming number of security troops will be able to easily control any radical protesters who might try to break through police lines or vandalize property.