Mob violence greeted yesterday's opening of the World Economic Forum's Asia Pacific conference in Melbourne, with demonstra tors preventing a third of delegates from attending what had been dubbed the 'Business Olympics'.
In scenes reminiscent of last year's World Trade Organisation meeting in Seattle, protesters denounced corporate greed, free trade and environmental degradation and fought pitched battles with police that left more than 50 injured. Two people were arrested.
An estimated 1,500 protesters failed in their bid to close down the forum, but, by means of a human chain surrounding the perimeter of the complex, succeeded in blocking 300 delegates from entering. Those needing to leave were forced to do so by helicopter or in small inflatable water taxis on the Yarra river.
David Glanz, of the S11 group behind the blockade, said its aims had been achieved: 'We have made a powerful point today. A sea of humanity demonstrated to that tower of self-interest the concerns of ordinary people.'
Violence erupted in the early morning as bus-loads of business delegates sought to run the protesters' blockade. After being rebuffed, further attempts were aborted and some delegates complained of half-hearted police attempts to secure their entry.
Victoria's state Finance Minister Lynne Kosky denied charges of incompetence, saying: 'We were as prepared as we possibly could have been, but on the day, the level of the protest could not have been predicted.'
Australian Treasurer Peter Costello hit out at protesters but admitted that concern over the malign effects of globalisation needed to be addressed. 'There's obviously been some violent behaviour by some protesters who attempted to prevent people from entering. I condemn that, and I call on those protesters to exercise their right to protest peacefully,' he said.
The violence was a blow to the World Economic Forum, which depends on the goodwill of business and political leaders attending its conferences. 'This is not a case of disobedience of an unjust law, it is open defiance of the very laws that protect free speech and free assembly,' the forum's communications director, Charles McLean, said.
Protest organisers have vowed to continue the blockade of the event until its conclusion tomorrow, and predict that 10,000 trade union members will join its effort tomorrow.
Next year's Asia Pacific forum is to be held in the SAR.