About 150 protesters attacked riot police with rocks and metal barriers and ripped down lampposts in Colombia’s capital today, just moments after US President George W Bush landed for a six-hour visit.
About 200 helmeted police in full body armour responded with water cannon and marched forward, banging their batons against riot shields, to reclaim the street, located about 1.6 km from the presidential palace. No injuries were immediately reported.
The rioters had broken away from about 2000 protesters, including students and members of the left-wing political opposition, who gathered about an hour before Bush’s arrival, chanting "Down with Bush" and burning American flags.
As Bush’s convoy passed about 200 metres away on the way to meet President Alvaro Uribe at the presidential palace, the protesters chanted "Bush go home."
The protesters object that $900 million annually received by Colombia in mostly military US aid only fuels the country’s half century-old conflict and encourages human rights abuses by this country’s armed forces.
At a concert on Friday night in Bogota’s main park by the former Pink Floyd frontman Roger Waters a big balloon of a pig was released that said "Patron Bush, Welcome to your Colombian Ranch."
Security in Bogota was extensive, with snipers taking up rooftop perches to guard Bush’s 70-vehicle convoy as it drove 20 minutes from El Dorado airport. The highest-security stop on Bush’s five-nation tour, the Colombia visit was also the shortest stopover on the trip.
About 7000 police and troops blocked off large parts of the Bogota, while 14,000 reinforcements set up roadblocks, checking IDs and searching vehicles in the capital’s outskirts.
In contrast with visits to Bogota by US Presidents Ronald Reagan in 1982 and John F Kennedy in 1961, there was no popular reception for Bush, with streets adjacent the presidential palace closed to traffic and pedestrians alike.
Bogota residents also had to do without their beloved "ciclovia", in which major avenues are shut down to traffic on Sundays so people can bike, skate and jog.
"The security measures are excessive," said 56-year-old Manuel Cifuentes, who runs a food stand on the Plaza de Bolivar in the heart of Bogota and said he hadn’t had much business in the past few days.
During Uribe’s first inauguration, in 2002, a mortar attack blamed on leftist rebels terrified visiting dignitaries killed 21 people in a slum near the presidential palace.
Every manhole cover within a five-block radius of the palace and along Bush’s motorcade route was spray-painted with orange ahead of Sunday’s visit to alert security agents to any tampering.
Among those grousing about the extraordinary security — including electronic scans of mobile phone and data traffic — was taxi driver Felipe Rodriguez, who expected to only earn about 60,000 pesos (less than $A35), half his normal take for a Sunday.
Bush arrived from Uruguay, where about 150 anti-US demonstrators marched through the Uruguayan capital of Montevideo the previous day.
Police and some protesters had clashed during a 6,000-strong march on Thursday in Sao Paulo, Brazil, and activists smashed windows and burned tyres on Friday in Montevideo, the first two stops of Bush’s five-country tour.