Protest peaceful at Commonwealth summit

PERTH, Australia - A protest rally to mark the opening of a Commonwealth leaders summit in Perth passed off peacefully Friday amid a huge police presence in the West Australian capital.

The city centre was virtually locked down as Queen Elizabeth II opened the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM), with steel barricades, road spikes and mounted police barring access to the event venue.

As police choppers hovered overhead, some 1,500 demonstrators gathered at an officially designated zone in the city centre's Forrest Place to hear speeches from human rights activists and anti-capitalism campaigners.

"We share a common bond. We have all been screwed by the Commonwealth," an Aboriginal protestor told the crowd, which included Congolese objecting to the presence of Rwandan President Paul Kagame.

Hundreds of people then marched through the city's retail district, chanting slogans while following rally organisers' calls to protest peacefully, shepherded by police on horseback.

Some had threatened to emulate the global "Occupy" movement and set up camp in the city, but they settled for a 30-minute sit-in on the edge of a 600 metre (yard) exclusion zone around the Perth Convention Centre.

Riot police broke up anti-capitalism protests in Sydney and Melbourne this month and West Australian Premier Colin Barnett warned before Friday's rally that activists would not be allowed to disrupt the Perth summit.

Reports estimated about half the state's 6,000-strong force was involved in the CHOGM security operation, along with an additional 800 drafted in from New Zealand and elsewhere in Australia.

Police have been given special powers for the three-day event, allowing them to search people at will and ban known activists from certain areas.

One demonstrator held a sign saying: "Sorry for the inconvenience - we're trying to change the world."

CHOGM Action Network spokeswoman Colleen Bolger said the protesters were determined to exercise their democratic right to march, despite the massive police presence.

"I think the authorities in the lead-up have undermined their commitment to support peaceful demonstrations through intimidation," she told AFP.

"The repression has been intense."

The protesters represented a wide range of causes, including opposition to the Afghanistan war, detention of refugees, corporate greed and the growing rich-poor divide.

A group of about 60 Tamils were among the most vocal, calling for Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse to be arrested over war crimes allegations stemming from the island nation's civil war.

"Please Australia, put him into jail, don't send him back home," Tamil speaker Yogan Tharma told the crowd.

Retiree Nath Haymann, 64, drove three hours from her home outside Perth to join the rally, where she brandished a placard reading: "Stop global militarisation".

"I'm here for a range of reasons... world militarisation, world hunger and the threat of nuclear warfare, and all of the issues of social justice," she said.