Arrests as hundreds stage peace march

PARTS of Colchester were brought to a standstill on Saturday as 150 police officers swarmed into the Garrison to control one of the biggest peace protests held in the town so far.

By Sharon Asplin

PARTS of Colchester were brought to a standstill on Saturday as 150 police officers swarmed into the Garrison to control one of the biggest peace protests held in the town so far.

Twenty-four people were arrested on suspicion of holding an illegal assembly after a small group from the Colchester Peace Campaign's procession broke through the ranks of officers to stage a sit-down vigil across the main gate of Goojerat Barracks.

Afterwards, both sides said the event had gone off peacefully and with good humour.

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About 350 anti-war campaigners, ranging from children to pensioners, assembled at the Jumbo water tower at lunchtime. They then marched through the town centre, converging about 90 minutes later on Abbey Field, just opposite Goojerat Barracks– where members of 16 Air Assault Brigade were stationed before being sent to the Gulf.

There, they were greeted by about 100 officers from Essex Police and almost as many military policemen.

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Some drifted away soon after arrival, but about 200 remained, armed with placards and posters and accompanied by John Lennon's rousing "Give Peace A Chance" which played interminably from loud speakers throughout the afternoon.

The group held a minute's silence and then organisers called for volunteers to break through the police line to sit at the barracks' gates.

Once seated, police officers approached them, formally requesting them to move. To the cheers of their supporters waiting across the road, the 24 men and women aged in their late teens to their sixties who did not were arrested under Section 14 of the Public Order Act, accused of holding an illegal assembly.

They were taken to waiting police vans and then Colchester police station for questioning.

One of the organisers, Larry Reynolds, who did not take part in the sit-down protest, said: "It was brilliant, it was peaceful, with good humour - there was a huge turnout and many people had never protested before.

"This is the way things are going and they are only going to get bigger and bigger and if war starts there will be even more people resorting to civil disobedience."

Campaign spokesman Andy Abbott said: "During our ongoing petitioning and leafleting in Colchester town centre we continue to meet service families speaking out against the war with Iraq.

"There is no public support, there is no UN support and two million have marched, yet Blair is determined to carry on with Bush's crazy war plans.

"In these circumstances, we as a campaign, have no other choice than to move towards mass non-violent civil disobedience. With this in mind, we felt it appropriate to introduce this tactic to our local protests and establish a symbolic peaceful sit-down at the Goojerat main gate."

After the arrests, a handful of remaining protesters continued to the nearby police station to hold a peaceful demonstration that evening until their friends were released.

Essex Police announced earlier in the week they were drafting in extra officers on Saturday. More than 200 officers were deployed altogether for the operation, including the military police and their dogs, investigating officers and backroom, custody and communications staff. Some officers were employed to monitor and record video footage of the demonstrators and detectives will now be investigating the tactics employed by the protest organisers.

Chief Inspector Tim Newcomb said: "Colchester Police supports the right of people to have a peaceful protest and we were pleased to have been able to escort the march to ensure the safety of the marchers and to make sure they were not at risk through traffic hazards and other members of the public who may not have shared their views.

"But, by the same token, we have to respect the rights of the community using that road outside the barracks and the needs of the military to maintain their effectiveness, which is why we said we could not have it [the protest] in the road or at the entrance to the barracks.

"Unfortunately 24 people chose to break those conditions and got themselves arrested."

He added that the police operation went very smoothly.

"I was very, very proud of my officers on duty today," he said. "Good humour and professionalism was displayed and they were all very disciplined."

Chief Inspector Iain Logan, who was in charge to the 150 officers at the scene, added it was a "small minority" who had allegedly breached an order prohibiting them from designated areas of Garrison land.

He said: "We had hoped not to make arrests and had gone to considerable lengths to explain the restrictions to participants. A vote taken by the participants at the assembly point showed a large majority in favour of staying within the law and about 50 of them decided not to take any further part in the protest.

"While the event was peaceful, it is disappointing that so many officers from Essex Police and the Ministry of Defence police had to be distracted to attend."

Bomb disposal units moved from Goojerat Barracks to Meeanee Barracks for the day amid fears their access could be disrupted by the protest.

n On Saturday night, 18 men and five women were released on police bail until May pending further inquiries. An elderly woman was released without charge.

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