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Europe on guard for May 1 protests

Berlin 2002
German police arrest a protester in Berlin on May Day 2002.

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BERLIN, Germany -- Security was being stepped up in major European capitals as tens of thousands of peace and labor activists prepared to take to the streets Thursday for May Day protests.

Large demonstrations are expected May 1 in the major European capitals -- Berlin, Paris, London, Rome, Athens and Madrid -- with protests against the U.S.-led war against Iraq being added to traditional trade union demands for workers' rights.

In Athens there are to be antiwar protests outside the U.S. Embassy, while Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar's support for the war in Iraq is expected to draw large numbers to marches in Madrid.

Spain's two main trade unions are to march to the banner: "For peace, for work. No to war." A joint statement says their May 1 demonstrations will be "another rejection of those who are proud of having conducted an unjust and illegitimate war."

In a similar move, several political parties -- led by the Communists -- are marching in Moscow in favor of "freedom against the war and against exploitation by big business and the powers of control, particularly in Russia and the United States."

In Berlin, 7,500 police backed by water cannons were to be drafted into the Kreuzberg and Prenzlauer Berg districts which in the past have seen street rioting.

One potential flash point is a march by members of the far right which could bring clashes with left wing counter-demonstrators.

What began as marches to mark the achievements and strength of trades unions have increasingly been used by the far left as an opportunity to spark pitched street battles.

Berlin has suffered more than most with criminal damage, looting and cars set ablaze. On Wednesday night, shop windows were being boarded up and vehicles moved to safer parts of the city.

In London, police said that after a spate of anti-war protests -- including one in which a million people walked the streets of the capital -- they expected the numbers to be down for this year's May Day marches.

But they were leaving little to chance with previous May Days in London bringing chaotic violence, riots and mass arrests with offices and businesses attacked.

In the worst riots in 2000, masked demonstrators ransacked a McDonald's restaurant and trashed other buildings.

On Thursday, oil and arms companies -- firms with connections to Iraq and government buildings are all being targeted by protesters -- with the event going under the banner "Mayday 2003 Weapons of Mass Construction -- Our Day."

Up to 60 firms are on an Internet so-called "Hit List" for protesters, according to one report quoted by the UK's Press Association.

The London Mayday Collective is also organizing a demonstration at the offices of United States arms firm Lockheed Martin and then at the headquarters of oil giant Shell.

About 4,000 police will be on duty and Scotland Yard has canceled all leave for May 1.

In Paris, 35 years after the student-led revolt of May 1968, aside from the May Day rallies, trade unions are planning three days of protest and strikes to halt what they say is a smash-and-grab raid on state pensions, civil servant jobs and other pillars of the public sector.

"It begins with marches and lilies of the valley," the weekly Journal du Dimanche said of the flowers sported by the left on the May 1 rallies that have kicked off past protests. "After that, it's anyone's guess," it said.

In the Czech capital Prague, protests have been organized by antiwar, anti-capitalist, anti-EU and pro-EU groups.

Though in Warsaw, Poland, the main left-wing trades union OPZZ is boycotting the demonstrations for the first time since the collapse of communism in protest against rising unemployment and the cost-of-living.

May Day originated as "workers' day" in Europe -- similar to Labor day in the U.S. and Canada, held on the first Monday in September -- when in 1889 the International Socialist Congress designated May 1 as a day in support of workers.

In some countries, May Day subsequently came to be marked by parades and ceremonies noting the contributions of labor unions.

After World War II, in the Soviet Union and the Soviet-bloc countries of eastern Europe, May Day parades became important political and military observances -- notably the annual Soviet parade of troops, tanks and missiles in Red Square, Moscow.

After the fall of Communism these shows of military strength became less important.

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