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Rice visit to Jack Straw's contituency sparks protests

Written by: Staff
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London, Apr 01: A two-day whistle-stop tour introducing the US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice to the ''real Britain'' of Blackburn and Liverpool has turned into a diplomatic embarrassment for Foreign Secretary Jack Straw.

The Foreign Secretary's constituency in Blackburn has about 25,000 Muslims who are protesting against Ms Rice's visit over the Iraq war and clerics have refused to allow her to visit a mosque.

The trip to the Blackburn-based Masjide Al Hidayah mosque, which was supposed to be a highlight of her visit has now been cancelled for ''security reasons''. In Liverpool, a local newspaper columnist likened the visit to one by the British Fascist leader Oswald Mosley in the 1930s.

Ironically, Mr Straw had hoped the visit to the mosque would be a personal triumph in a display of religious harmony.

One of the clerics who decided on the ban said, ''Letting her (Rice) inside one of our mosque is like allowing Ariel Sharon or a terrorist.'' He added that it was not right that a woman ''with thousands of people's blood on her hands should be allowed to visit our mosques and have her pictures taken.''

Straw said, ''To claim that a leading figure of one of our great allies is a terrorist is totally inappropriate. Everything we are doing on the visit is being done with respect to the communities involved. I'm disappointed that it is not possible for Secretary Rice to visit this mosque but she is going to see plenty else of Blackburn, and will be able to meet many members of the Asian community in town.''

A visit to a high school which has a majority of Muslim pupils was also likely to be disrupted after scores of parents threatened to keep their children away in protest. But the visit to meet staff at the 1,200-pupil Pleckgate High School was not cancelled.

Thousands of protesters plan rallies in Blackburn tomorrow morning. Assistant Chief Constable Patricia Gallan, of Merseyside Police, said ''Trained officers will be on hand to deal swiftly with anyone who breaks the law and puts public safety at risk. We need to ensure public safety is maintained at all times.'' Ms Rice's attendance at the concert, to celebrate the city's status as European Capital of Culture 2008, has already caused controversy with poet Roger McGough refusing to compere the event.

He said he originally accepted the role without realising the depth of feeling against the visit among anti-war protesters.

Rice was received at Liverpool's John Lennon Airport by city dignitaries yesterday evening. Later, a few anti-war protesters chanted slogans outside her hotel.

UNI

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