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Up to 500,000 in anti-war march

Smoke flares are used by antiwar demonstrators in Florence
Smoke flares are used by antiwar demonstrators in Florence

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FLORENCE, Italy -- Almost half-a-million people have taken part in a march through Florence in what was promoted as the first Europe-wide anti-war rally.

Organisers estimated the crowd at 400,000, mostly members of leftist groups.

But a police source, while not giving an official figure, told CNN the organisers' estimate was "quite realistic" and that the number "could be close to 500,000."

The rally passed off peacefully with a carnival atmosphere on Saturday.

Many carried banners reading "Take your war and go to hell," and "No to war."

Stavos Valsamis, a 27-year-old Greek activist from Athens, told Reuters: "The atmosphere here is wonderful. Absolutely perfect. It shows that a new young left is emerging."

"It's totally clear that this is a war for oil, a war for imperialism," said Simon Hardy, 21, a member of the British Socialist group Revolution.

"Iraq can't win, the U.S. wants war."

A ring of steel has been placed around the Italian city, with shops closed and the Renaissance city centre sealed off, but police on duty were in their normal uniforms rather than riot gear.

The demonstration is part of the European Social Forum -- a gathering of anti-globalisation groups which is trying to decide how the movement should progress.

Some 20 trains and hundreds of special buses began arriving in the early hours, bringing demonstrators from across the continent.

Guy Taylor, an activist with Britain's Globalise Resistance, told Reuters: "This is the first Europe-wide anti-war demonstration and I think it's vital it has a real impact.

Police say the number taking part could be near 500,000
Police say the number taking part could be near 500,000

"There's such strong underlying opposition to the war that I think we can stop it."

The protest was being held a day after the U.N. passed a resolution paving the way for the return of weapons inspectors into Iraq. (Story)

Baghdad is required to comply with the inspectors or face "serious consequences."

"It's a scandalous resolution," said Sean Murray, 29, a member of a group called the Workers' Revolution.

"It proves once more that the United Nations is a puppet of America, Britain and France and is not an institution that's there to serve the interests of the world's people."

The march was billed as a major test for Italian police, after the death in Genoa last year of an anti-globalisation protester during violent clashes with police.

Fearing damage to artistic gems such as Michelangelo's David, more than 6,000 police were assigned to patrol Florence and surrounding areas during the forum.

The European Union's Schengen Treaty -- which normally allows for no border controls when travellers go from country to country in the 15-nation grouping -- was also been suspended ahead of the demonstration.

The anti-globalisation movement has made headlines for demonstrations, sometimes violent, at meetings of international bodies such as the World Trade Organization, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and G8.

The four-day European Social Forum is the first attempt to unite the array of anti-globalisation movements scattered across Europe.

The decision to allow the forum to be held in Florence -- after the violence seen in Genoa -- has resulted in weeks of debate in Italy.

Premier Silvio Berlusconi called the choice "risky," but the government eventually gave approval, while stepping up security.

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