Mon, Nov 17, 2003 - Page 6 News List

Britain rejects US request for immunity

EXTRAORDINARY DEMANDS American officials had sought the closure of tube lines and the shipping in of battlefield weaponry for George W. Bush's trip to the UK


British Home Secretary David Blunkett has refused calls to grant diplomatic immunity to armed American special agents and snipers traveling to Britain as part of US President George W. Bush's entourage.

In the case of the accidental shooting of a protester, the Americans in Bush's protection squad will face justice in a British court exactly as would any other visitor to these shores, the Home Office has confirmed.

The issue of immunity is one of a series of extraordinary US demands turned down by ministers and the prime minister's office during preparations for the Bush visit.

These include the closure of the tube network, the use of US air force planes and helicopters and the shipping in of battlefield weaponry to use against rioters.

In return, the British authorities have had to agree to numerous concessions, including the creation of a "sterile zone" around the president with a series of road closures in central London and a security cordon keeping the public away from the presidential cavalcade.

The White House initially demanded the closure of all tube lines under those parts of London visited during the trip. But British officials have dismissed the idea that a suicide bomber could kill the president by blowing up a tube train.

Ministers are also believed to have dismissed suggestions that a "sterile zone" around the president should be policed entirely by American special agents and military.

Demands for the US air force to patrol the skies above London with fighter aircraft and Black Hawk helicopters have also been turned down.

The president's protection force will be armed (as is British Prime Minister Tony Blair's when he travels abroad) and around 250 secret service agents will fly in with Bush, but operational control will remain with the Metropolitan Police.

The Americans had also wanted to travel with a devastating piece of military hardware called a "mini-gun," which usually forms part of the mobile armory in the presidential cavalcade. It is usually fired from a tank and can kill dozens of people. One manufacturer's description reads: "Due to the small caliber of the round, the mini-gun can be used practically anywhere. This is especially helpful during peacekeeping deployments."

Ministers have made clear to Washington that the awesome firepower of the presidential mini-gun will not be available during the state visit to Britain. In return, the government has agreed to close off much of Whitehall during the visit -- the usual practice in Britain is to use police outriders to close roads as the cavalcade passes to cause minimal disruption to traffic.

A Home Office spokeswoman said: "Negotiations between here and the US have been perfectly amicable. If there have been requests, they have not posed any problems."

An internal memo sent to Cabinet Office staff and leaked to the press this weekend urged staff to work from home if possible during the presidential visit. Serious disruption would be caused by "the President Bush vehicle entourage requesting cleared secured vehicle routes around London and the security cordons creating a sterile zone around him."

Meanwhile, negotiations are continuing between police and demonstrators about the route of the march. Representatives of the Stop the War Coalition will meet police at Scotland Yard this afternoon to discuss whether protesters will be able to march through Parliament Square and up Whitehall. Spokesman Andrew Burgin said he hoped for "a good old-fashioned British compromise."

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