Belgians march to defend country's unity

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BRUSSELS, Nov 18 (Reuters) Some 35,000 Belgians marched through Brussels today to defend the unity of their linguistically divided country after a government crisis that has led to speculation the kingdom may break up.

The protest was meant to press Dutch- and French-speaking politicians to resolve differences that have left the country without a new administration, a record 161 days after a parliamentary election.

''We, Belgians of birth, heart or choice, demand that politicians respect our country and our unity,'' said the marchers' declaration, to be handed to parliamentary leaders.

The suspension of four-party talks to form a government this month has revived media speculation about a possible break-up of the 177-year-old nation, seat of the European Union's main institutions, though polls show most Belgians favour unity.

''It's a strong signal and we must take notice of such signals since it doesn't happen often,'' francophone Socialist Party leader Elio de Rupo told reporters.

Police estimated the number of protesters swelled to 35,000 as they marched from the Gare du Nord railway station in central Brussels to the Parc du Cinquantenaire near the EU headquarters.

Police said 15 students from a Flemish nationalist group were briefly detained after trying to stage an illegal counter-demonstration in front of the royal palace.

The march's organiser, civil servant Marie-Claire Houard, had expected up to 50,000 people. She has collected nearly 140,000 signatures on the petition to preserve the unity of the nation of 10.5 million people.

''...we have loads of problems with politicians ... we have come here to show we are all together and in solidarity...'' said one marcher, Brussels resident Yannel de Wouters.

Francophones were in a clear majority among the marchers, many wrapped in Belgium's black, yellow and red flag.

French-language newspapers had urged its readers to join the march, but the Dutch-language press gave the rally minimal coverage.

Politicians from richer, more populous Dutch-speaking Flanders in the north want more autonomy, while those from poorer, French-speaking Wallonia are defending the status quo.

Belgians on either side of the language divide have their own schools and news media and different political parties.

The last time Belgium faced a problem on this scale was in 1988, when it took 148 days to form a government.

REUTERS PY VC2145

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