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Labour welcomes back Iraq heckler

Peace activist, 82, thrown out after shouting 'nonsense'


Was the ejection of a heckler from Britain's Labour Party conference:
A mistake by stewards
Erosion of free speech
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Great Britain
Tony Blair
Jack Straw

BRIGHTON, England -- Britain's Labour Party has given a hero's welcome at its annual meeting to an 82-year-old man who was thrown out after heckling Foreign Secretary Jack Straw over the Iraq war.

Senior party leaders -- from Prime Minister Tony Blair down -- have apologized to Walter Wolfgang over his rough treatment by stewards. And on Thursday Wolfgang returned to the conference hall in Brighton, southern England, as Labour delegates cheered him.

Wolfgang said: "I think some people here lost their cool because the British public and the Labour Party in particular is becoming convinced we made a mistake going to war against Iraq and an even bigger mistake in staying there."

He said he did not want an apology so much as a reversal of Labour policy on Iraq and an admission that the war was wrong.

Wolfgang sat alongside another man who was ejected with him the day before, Steve Forrest, to watch Defence Secretary John Reid deliver an on-stage apology to them.

Wolfgang laughed and applauded throughout Reid's end of conference address to delegates.

Reid said: "I am sorry about yesterday. I was on the platform. We didn't want it. It shouldn't have happened. It's not the way we do things in here."

"Everybody is really sorry and we apologise for that," he added to applause. Reid added that Wolfgang, a Labour member for 57 years, was "entitled" to his point of view.

Earlier Thursday Blair said stewards had been "overzealous" in their treatment of Wolfgang, telling British television: "I'm really sorry about it."

Wolfgang, a veteran peace campaigner who fled Nazi Germany as a Jewish refugee to make Britain his home, shouted "nonsense" at Straw on Wednesday as he said UK troops would remain in Iraq.

Stewards grabbed Wolfgang and physically removed him from the conference hall, prompting Forrest, to shout out a complaint about his treatment.

Forrest was also ejected from the conference center on Brighton's seafront.

Wolfgang tried to re-enter the conference venue but was stopped by police using powers under the Terrorism Act and had his pass confiscated, the UK's Press Association reported.

On Thursday, Blair told BBC television: "People are perfectly entitled to freedom of speech in our country and we should celebrate that fact and I'm really sorry about what happened to Walter and I've apologized to him.

"It's just an unfortunate thing that happened. The Labour Party has apologized. The chairman of the Labour Party and I have apologized to him."

On Wednesday night, Labour officials invited Wolfgang back to the conference Thursday provided he gave assurances he would not cause a disturbance.

"The Labour Party reserves its rights to remove from the conference site people who cause a persistent disturbance. However it is clear from TV footage that the way in which Mr. Wolfgang was removed was inappropriate," a party statement said.

The incident cast a shadow over the final session of the party's annual conference, as Blair was forced to field a series of questions about Wolfgang's treatment during a round of early morning broadcast interviews.

Wolfgang, from Richmond, southwest London, said he was approached by stewards after shouting "nonsense" as Straw was speaking.

Wolfgang said: "I shouted out 'nonsense.' That's all I said. Then these two toughies came round and wanted to manhandle me out.

"I said 'Do you want me to leave? I will leave, you don't need to manhandle me.' Physically, I am not too well, so I said I would follow them.

"Most of the Labour Party stewards are very nice people. One or two people lend themselves to this nonsense."

A Labour Party member of 57 years' standing, Wolfgang said: "It makes me feel that the people who resort to these tactics are very unsure of themselves and they are on the losing side."

Blair's decision to back the U.S.-led war divided his party and the British public, and anger still remains over the conflict.

Several delegates at the conference had complained at the lack of a full debate on Iraq, which was mentioned in passing in a broader session on "Britain in an Interdependent World," Reuters reported.

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