- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 4, 2009

STRASBOURG, FRANCE (AP) - Hundreds of protesters attacked police and set a hotel and customs station ablaze Saturday in this historic Alsatian city on the German border chosen by NATO summit organizers as a symbol of European unity.

First lady Michelle Obama and other spouses canceled a visit to a cancer hospital out of concern for security, the French president’s office said, after hundreds of protesters took up positions near the hospital they were to visit.

Most protesters marched peacefully, calling for an end to war and decrying NATO as a tool of Western imperialism.

But a demonstration that began calmly turned violent around noon (1000 GMT) in east Strasbourg about a mile from the Rhine River and the German border. An AP reporter saw police in body armor and helmets hoisting shields as they were pelted by several hundred protesters with rocks, sticks and then Molotov cocktails.

About 100 officers responded by lobbing concussion grenades and volleys of tear gas into the crowds of demonstrators, many dressed in black and wearing masks or balaclavas.

“I’ve never pulled so much metal out of people,” said Ramon Schmidt, a medic tending to injured demonstrators.

Members of the violence-prone “black bloc” _ named for their black clothes and hoods _ then headed toward the Europe Bridge over the Rhine river.

French Interior Minister Michele Alliot-Marie condemned the violence, telling France-3 television that some of the protesters were “very violent.” “There was a band of hoodlums, you must call them by their name, who were there only to destroy,” she said.

Hours earlier, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and two dozen other NATO leaders had walked across the bridge from Germany to France to open the main session 60th-anniversary summit with a photogenic display of European cooperation.

As the leaders met behind closed doors near Strasbourg’s center, the black-clad demonstrators set fire to the customs station on the French side of the Europe Bridge and sprayed graffiti on the walls of buildings.

German police used used water cannon to extinguish the blaze, but French fire fighters had to be called in. As the crowd dissipated, a convenience store was overrun and ransacked.

French police said approximately 1,000 of the estimated 10,000 demonstrators in Strasbourg were “particularly violent” and “had not stopped attacking.” They reported about a dozen injuries in the series of clashes that lasted until the late afternoon.

AP photographers saw protesters storm a budget hotel about a 5-minute walk from the Europe Bridge, setting fires and pilfering alcohol from its bar. Police said that a local pharmacy was also gutted, along with a building that housed small businesses.

Stacks of old tires were also set ablaze, unleashing thick plumes of black smoke that could be seen from across the river. Near the bonfire was a sign welcoming visitors to Strasbourg

Around 2:45 p.m. (1245 GMT), the protesters, throwing rocks, tried to storm a massive police blockade at the d’Anvers bridge. They were driven back by water cannon, tear gas, flash bombs and rubber bullets. Across the canal, nearly 1,000 people gathered to watch the fracas.

Across the Rhine in Kehl, Germany, an estimated 7,000 demonstrators gathered peacefully and hoped to cross into Strasbourg but were diverted by scores of police. Protest organizers said 10,000 people were on hand.

German authorities had estimated that up to 25,000 protesters would take part in demonstrations but many were frustrated by the presence of some 15,000 German police and 9,000 French police, some in helicopters and fast boats patrolling the Rhine.

___

Thomas Seythal reported from Kehl, Germany.

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