Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 22 May 2019

G20: Rioting and chaos cast shadow over first day of world leaders' summit

Security concerns on second day of protests see events plan changed for G20 spouses

Protesters burn garbage during a demonstration at the G20 summit in Hamburg
Protesters burn garbage during a demonstration at the G20 summit in Hamburg

Hamburg// World leaders began their G20 summit in Hamburg today Friday amid scenes of rioting and chaos on the city’s streets and clear differences on climate change and trade among delegates.

As the serious disturbances of Thursday night spilled over into a second day of violence and damage, the northern German city’s police called in reinforcements from the rest of the country as they struggled to contain the threat from thousands of anti-capitalist protesters.

Dozens of police cars and other vehicles were set on fire, railway links and a police station were attacked and windows were smashed at a number of flashpoints.

Repeated attempts were made to block important bridges and junctions and breach the tightly controlled security cordon around the summit venue, the Hamburg Messe (Exhibition) and Congress Centre.

A programme of visits for G20 delegates’ spouses had to be changed to ensure they were not caught up in the protests. Security concerns led to US President Donald Trump’s wife, Melania, remaining at the couple’s residence, a villa owned by the city council, instead of joining the others.

Water cannons, which have become a common feature of police tactics, were used against some of the 6,000 protesters, including 1,000 illegally masking their faces, who tried to break into a secure zone surrounding the venue of a concert for world leaders and their accompanying families in the harbour area of the city.

Despite her absence from the earlier events, Mrs Trump was at her husband's side as the concert began.

Elsewhere, security guards were attacked outside at the hotel where Russia’s president Vladimir Putin and other delegates are staying and 11 demonstrators fleeing police were injured when a fence gave way under their weight as they tried to scale it. Police reported firebomb attacks on officers in the Altona district and accused rioters of using slings to fire projectiles.

The further outbreaks of violence and criminal damage came as the number of police officers known to have been hurt rose to 200including a helicopter pilot temporarily blinded when a laser beam was directed at his aircraft. On Friday night, riots and tense standoffs continued in several city centre areas.

An unknown number of demonstrators were also hurt in clashes on Thursday and Friday and 45 had been arrested by midday on Friday. The widespread nature of the protests showed the defiance of anti-G20 elements after an appeal from the German government for demonstrations to be peaceful.

And police are braced for worse to come. Estimates for Saturday’s main anti-G20 demonstrations suggest tens of thousands, possibly as many as 100,000, people hostile to the summit will be in the northern German port city. Even before the scale of protests grew, the German government was talking of up to 8,000 protesters being intent on violence as they tried to disrupt the summit by any means necessary.

Despite the deployment of almost 20,000 officers, there were fears the police would be overwhelmed. The call for reinforcements came as Hamburg police chiefs admitted they were having to deal with an enormous number of criminal acts. At least 850 extra officers were said to be heading for Hamburg from other areas of Germany, with more certain to follow.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, a native of Hamburg who chairs the summit, staked her reputation and possibly her immediate political future on insisting the city should host G20.

She wanted to show that democratic society could tolerate dissent. But facing an election campaign in September, she could see her chances affected by public perceptions of responsibility for the rioting that has followed.

Mrs Merkel condemned the violence as unacceptable. She said she had a “great deal of understanding for peaceful protests” but said violence endangered human life.

Formal deliberations as G20 opened were overshadowed by the keenly awaited face-to-face meeting of the US and Russian presidents, Mr Trump and Vladimir Putin, on the margins of the two-day conference.

But the so-called BRIC countries – Brazil, Russia, India and China – issued a joint communique intended to put pressure on Mr Trump over his decision to withdraw the US from the Paris climate accord. They called on G20 to press for implementation of the agreement.

Mrs Merkel admitted the official G20 negotiators, known as sherpas, were working hard to overcome “very difficult” issues on agreeing the wording of the joint statement of climate change to be issued at the end of the summit.

There was also concern over Mr Trump’s “America First” policies and this surfaced in a sessions on global growth and trade.

While last year’s G20 underlined a commitment to promoting international trade, the US under Mr Trump has worked hard to exclude the rejection of protectionism from statements from international bodies, including the G20’s own meeting of finance ministers earlier this year.

Russia is subject, in addition, to sanctions imposed by the EU and US over its involvement in the Ukraine conflict. Without directly mentioning these measures, Mr Putin called on Friday for G20 to oppose “illegal and politically biased trade and financial restrictions”.

In her speech opening the summit, Mrs Merkel said the eyes and ears of millions around the world were on delegates, the world leaders they looked to for reassurance on their anxieties and fears.

She urged them to strive for compromise without abandoning their principles or a willingness to admit that they differ on some major issues.

The first topic under discussion as world leaders got to work – countering terrorism and the financing of it – brought broad agreement.

A joint communique later reaffirmed G20’s “commitment to tackle all sources, techniques and channels of terrorist financing” and the strengthening of measures to halt funding financing of terror groups, especially ISIL, Al Qaeda and their affiliates.

“There should be no ‘safe spaces’ for terrorist financing anywhere in the world,” the statement said. ”However, inconsistent and weak implementation of the United Nations and FATF [the intergovernmental Financial Action Task Force] standards allows them to persist.“

  • Additional reporting by Reuters

Updated: July 7, 2017 11:14 PM