11.00am

FLORENCE, Italy - More than half a million anti-war protesters from across Europe have marched through this Italian Renaissance city in a loud and colourful demonstration denouncing any possible US attack on Iraq.

Brimming with anti-American feelings and riled by a tough new UN resolution to disarm Iraq, young and old activists from as far afield as Russia and Portugal joined forces on Saturday for the carnival-like rally, singing Communist anthems and 1970s peace songs.

"Take your war and go to hell", read one banner, in a forest of multi-coloured and multi-lingual placards.

"Drop Bush, not Bombs" read another. Some placards depicted US President George W. Bush as Hitler and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi as Mussolini.

Organisers said the rally, planned months ago, gained added relevance by Friday's UN Security Council resolution which gave Iraq a last chance to disarm or face almost certain war.

The protest, involving children as well as grandmothers, marked the climax of the first European Social Forum, a four-day meeting of anti-globalisation campaigners from all over Europe. Delegates discussed topics from debt-reduction to support for the Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation.

Florence has been virtually shut down for the November 6-10 period, with the US State Department advising its citizens to steer clear of Italy's art capital over concerns that violent, anarchist groups might infiltrate the demonstration.

Authorities estimated that some 450,000 protesters flooded Florence's streets for the march on a chilly autumn afternoon.

But by dusk, the crowed had swelled to over half a million, many of them arriving on specially chartered trains and buses. Organisers estimated the gathering at around one million, making it one of Italy's biggest ever anti-war rallies.

Despite the large crowds, the march was largely peaceful and no incidents were reported.

"The atmosphere here is wonderful. Absolutely perfect. It shows that a new young left is emerging," said Stavos Valsamis, a 27-year-old Greek activist from Athens.

Children climbed on their parents' shoulders to get a view of the sea of crowds marching along the seven-km (4.5-miles) route. Many clapped as marchers passed by.

"This is amazing, it's so impressive," said 12-year-old Bianca Ronglia as she watched with her family from the side of the road. "I'm happy and proud that my city is holding this."

BIGGER THAN GENOA

The march was bigger than a protest at a G8 summit in Genoa last year, when 300,000 demonstrators took to the streets and an orgy of violence left one protester dead and hundreds injured.

Some 7,000 police officers were on call but security forces kept a low profile along the rally's route. No incidents were reported.

The rest of Florence was a ghost town with most shops in the art-rich historical centre pulling down the shutters for fear of vandals. However, the city's famed museums remained open and offered free entry to the few tourists around.

Many Florence residents deserted the city for the four days of the forum, prompting criticism from those who stayed behind.

"I'm really disappointed by my fellow Florentines -- it really shows very little faith. This whole event has been very calm, in fact the city has been much calmer and friendlier than usual," said housewife Maria Briccoli, 37.

As well as university-age students, older political activists and thousands of trades unionists, Saturday's throng also included Italian World War Two partisans and a US Vietnam war veteran who marched in the first row of the crowd.

While Friday's UN resolution gives the Security Council a central role in assessing the new arms' inspection programme for Iraq, it does not require the United States to seek UN authorisation for war in case of violations.

"I think it's a scandalous resolution," said Sean Murray, 29, a member of Workers' Revolution. "It proves once more that the UN is a puppet of America, Britain and France."

- REUTERS

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