Thousands of protesters were due on the streets of Belfast Saturday to urge G8 leaders to act on global poverty at their upcoming summit, expected to be dominated by talks on Syria.
Police in the Northern Irish capital expect 5,000 people to join each of two demonstrations organised by trade unions and campaigners against global hunger ahead of the G8 summit in the province on Monday and Tuesday.
Northern Ireland, which still suffers from sporadic sectarian violence despite a peace deal in 1998, has organised its biggest-ever police operation for the talks, with 8,000 officers deployed.
They will be split between Belfast and the luxury lakeside Lough Erne Resort where the G8 leaders will be staying, including US President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe left to attend the summit, where he hopes to shore up support for his bold policy of financial reforms dubbed “Abenomics”.
British Prime Minister David Cameron, who is hosting the summit, is pushing for agreement on his three G8 priorities of trade, tax and transparency.
In a newspaper interview published on Saturday, he revealed plans to require companies in Britain to register their ultimate beneficiaries to make it harder to avoid tax, and said he would urge his G8 colleagues to adopt a similar approach.
There was progress late Friday towards what he has admitted would be the biggest prize of the summit — the start of formal negotiations between the European Union and the United States on a free trade agreement.
EU trade ministers finally thrashed out an agreement on how to negotiate for a deal, after meeting a French demand to exclude the key audiovisual sector.
But the Syrian conflict looks set to dominate the talks after Washington upped the ante by pledging military aid to rebels seeking to oust President Bashar al-Assad.
The White House said for the first time on Thursday that the regime had used chemical weapons, notably sarin gas, on multiple occasions against the opposition — crossing what it has described as a red line.
The issue of Syria topped the agenda of an hour-long pre-summit videoconference on Friday between Obama and the leaders of France, Germany, Britain and Italy.
“They discussed the situation in Syria and how G8 countries should all agree to work on together a political transition to end the conflict,” a spokeswoman for Cameron’s Downing Street office said.
Officials said Washington would increase military support to the rebels, a move welcomed by Britain and France who successfully pushed for a lifting of the EU arms embargo on Syria last month.
Damascus rejected the US accusations as “lies”, while Moscow, a key player due to its long-standing support for Assad, said they were “unconvincing” and hurt efforts to make peace.
Russian President Vladimir Putin will meet Cameron in London for pre-summit talks on Sunday and then hold a bilateral with Obama in Belfast on Monday.
The US and Russian leaders will kick-start the G8 discussions on Syria, which British officials hope will get all parties in the conflict closer to the negotiating table.
Moscow and Washington have jointly proposed a peace conference in Geneva, building on a similar meeting last year, but no date has yet been set.
Cameron said he wanted G8 summits to “get back to a fireside chat” in which leaders sit together “without a lot of advisers and without a lot of communiques, addressing problems of the world that they want to do something about”.
“International gatherings are worthwhile, if they are done in the right way. The trouble is too many of them are about long communiques with endless textual arguments,” he told The Guardian newspaper.