MELBOURNE - Tens of thousands of people poured on to the streets in New Zealand and Australia on Saturday to march for peace, beginning a day of global protests against a looming U.S.-led war in Iraq.
The demonstrations are part of massive rallies planned throughout different time zones around the world with the peace movement expected to spread to more than 600 towns and cities stretching from the far south to Iceland in the north.
Protesters demonstrate during an anti-war rally in the Australian capital Canberra February 15, 2003. Tens of thousands of people poured on to the streets in Australia and New Zealand on Saturday to march for peace in Iraq, launching a day of protests across the world against looming U.S.-led war. (Reuters - Handout)
Organizers expect large crowds in New York and London, while protesters in Rome said they expected more than a million people to attend Saturday's peace march.
In Australia, about 16,000 activists gathered in the capital city Canberra, three times more than organizers had expected.
"It is an overwhelming success...and it points to the fact politics is made by common people and not by a handful of politicians," said Rick Kuhn, a spokesman for ACT NOW, the organizer.
In Sydney, two activists from a opposition party scaled an awning of a prominent building around the site of the U.S. consulate-general to unfurl a banner that read, "No US Oil War -- The Greens."
In west Australian city Perth, several thousand are expected to march later in the day, while in Asia, protests are planned for Tokyo, Hong Kong and Kuala Lumpur.
Australia has sent about 2,000 troops, jet fighters and warships to the Middle East to join American and British forces preparing for war.
"AXIS OF EVIL"
In nuclear-free New Zealand, several thousand people marched peacefully through the center of the nation's main city Auckland, while a plane trailed a giant banner reading "No War, Peace Now."
In the capital Wellington, more than 5,000 people clutching placards reading "Bush, Blair, Howard -- The Axis of Evil" and "Stop Bush Start Peace" marched through the city center, bringing traffic to a standstill.
Among the crowd, florists handed out leftover Valentine's Day flowers to mothers with babies, while spiky-haired teenagers with skulls painted on their faces joined the elderly as they waved white peace doves.
"Millions of people around the world are rallying today to say no to war, and New Zealand is the first country to send this message," Greenpeace spokesman Robbie Kelman said.
New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark on Saturday backed the continuation of weapons inspections in Iraq over any call for a second U.N. resolution to authorize the use of force.
Her comments followed a speech by chief U.N. arms inspector Hans Blix on Friday to the U.N. Security Council that no weapons of mass destruction had yet been found in Iraq, although he cautioned that many were unaccounted for.
In the United States, New York is gearing up for a large anti-war rally opposite U.N. headquarters, with more demonstrations planned across the United States.
In London, protest organizers said they expected a huge turnout, while across the rest of Europe, activists were expected to show their distrust of Washington's motivations and their fears the world could be engulfed in a wider conflict.
"We believe that the London demonstration will be one of the biggest and the most pivotal because the British government is actively involved in the build up to war and the British people definitely do not want war," Stop The War UK leader Andrew Murray said.
A major demonstration is also planned in the Australian city Sydney on Sunday. (Additional Reporting by Catherine Walbridge)
Copyright 2003 Reuters Ltd