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N.Y. police brace for finance forum

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NEW YORK — Hundreds of police officers braced for street protests Thursday as some of the world's most prominent business and political leaders convened in a posh Manhattan hotel to discuss the planet's biggest problems.

The 32nd World Economic Forum opened amid tight security, kicking off five days of talks on topics ranging from reducing poverty to improving security in the post-Sept. 11 world.

Even as the 3,000 or so participants met at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel, the sidelights that have come to mark international financial gatherings were in evidence: police in riot gear, rerouted traffic, concrete barriers, demonstrators in the streets.

At the first news conference of the event, former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani predicted that police would maintain calm.

"The police department and the infrastructure you see here is used to handling a meeting like this," said Giuliani, who was instrumental in bringing the forum to New York following the Sept. 11 terror attacks. "I expect this meeting to be peaceful, and I expect that if it isn't, it will be handled very, very quickly and you won't even know it."

In a seminar called "A Safer World: How do we Get There?" panelists discussed how extreme poverty might contribute to terrorism.

Alain Dieckhoff, the research director at France's Center for International Studies and Research, said the best way to combat terrorism is to build a strong middle class. "When you have that, it's easier to have democratic values and practices," he said.

About two blocks from the Waldorf, several hundred followers of the Chinese meditation sect Falun Gong — which is banned in China — did slow-motion bending and stretching exercises in a cold drizzle behind a police barricade where they hung a banner saying "Help Stop State Terrorism in China."

At another rally, a dozen environmentalists, outnumbered by reporters and camera crews, chanted, "WEF, you are the weakest link — goodbye!"

Nearby, police officers wearing olive green military helmets and flak jackets looked on. A few officers toted black submachine guns. The first scheduled protest, by a coalition of labor groups, was set for Thursday afternoon outside a nearby Gap store on Fifth Avenue.

Leaders of left-wing labor, student and environmental groups insist that daily demonstrations near the forum will be loud but peaceful. Some protests will feature giant papier-mch puppets, song and dance and street theater — not the vandalism and violence associated with past conferences, including a 1999 World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle that collapsed amid riots and tear gas.

The forum is being held outside Davos, Switzerland, for the first time. It was relocated to New York partly out of sympathy for a city hit hard by terrorism and still nervous about the prospect of future attacks.

Corporations pay $17,500 annually to be members of the World Economic Forum, and an additional $7,300 for each person they send to the conference.

A20 DESERET NEWS, THURS. P.M./FRI. A.M., JAN. 31 /FEB. 1, 2002