Protests greet G-8 leaders on summit eve

NAGO (JAPAN), JULY 20. Flanked by protests at a U.S. air base, leaders of the Group of Eight (G-8) industrial nations were preparing to open their annual summit tomorrow in Okinawa which will focus on debt, infectious disease and information technology issues. Leaders, including the U.S. President, Mr. Bill Clinton, were arriving for the three-day summit amid demonstrations aimed at the large American military presence on the island. Despite blistering heat and humidity on Thursday, over 27,000 protesters ringed the U.S. Kadena air base, protest organisers said. Kadena is one of the biggest American air bases outside the U.S. and home to 26,000 troops plus their families. A number of sexual assaults by U.S. soldiers on women from Okinawa have inflamed sentiment against the air base.

``We want the base removed from Okinawa,'' said Shikou Saki Yama, a protest orgaiser. U.S. troops have been stationed in Okinawa since the end of World War II when American troops captured the island after fierce fighting. Leaders of the G-7 club of wealthy nations - Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the United States - will kick off the summit tomorrow afternoon before being joined by the Russian President, Mr. Vladimir Putin for the full G-8.

G-7 leaders were expected to pledge a new round of trade talks by the end of the year under the World Trade Organisation (WTO), the Japanese business daily Nihon Keizai Shimbun said. Some G8 members, however, remain wary about setting a deadline because of expected protests from developing nations and anti-free trade groups, the paper said. The WTO round in Seattle last December ended in failure amid differences between developed and industrialised nations and chaotic street protests.

All G-7 members belong to the WTO. Russia is not in the WTO but wants to join. The G-7 is not due to reduce Russia's $60 billion public debt. Instead, leaders will call on Moscow to follow International Monetary Fund (IMF) reforms in order to get debt payments rescheduled. Total combined Russian public and private foreign debt is estimated at up to $150 billion. On other matters, the summit draft communique calls on Japan to continue efforts to boost economic recovery led by private-sector demand, the report said. It also urges Japan to push structural reforms in order to boost development of Information Iechnology (IT).

Japan, which has invested lavishly in preparing the summit, would like the summit to focus both on promoting and handling IT growth. But it is unclear if the Japanese Prime Minister, Mr. Yoshiro Mori is the man to do this. Mr. Mori admitted during a school visit earlier this month that he had never used a computer until recently and had only just sent his first e-mail. Nevertheless, Mr. Mori seems ready to put his money where his mouth is. In a bid to ease the ``digital divide'' between the rich and poor nations, Japan will announce a $15 billion IT aid package at the summit, officicals in Tokyo said. The Japanese Government has also been generous in funding the G-8 summit which is being held on Okinawa island, far south of Japan's mainland.