TAIWAN - In a huge anti-China protest, backed by the government, people joined hands to form a 500-kilometre (310-mile) human chain stretching the
length of Taiwan. In 1949 after communists won the civil war in mainland China, Nationalists fled to Taiwan and the island has since been governed
separately. Beijing insists the island be reunified with China, by force if necessary.
The high turnout for the government-backed protest highlighting the threat posed to the island from Chinese missiles was likely to boost the
re-election chances of President Chen Shui-bian, analysts said.
There was no independent confirmation of the figures but the opposition Kuomintang (KMT) disputed the size of the turnout.
The show of strength was designed to galvanise Chen's supporters before the March 20 ballot, with polls showing him lagging behind his sole
challenger, Lien Chan of the KMT.
Chen, of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), was at the organisers' headquarters at Miaoli, northern Taiwan, for the "Hand in Hand"
demonstration. He linked hands with former KMT president and pro-independence campaigner Lee Teng-hui.
"This is a historic event crossing ethnic, geographic, partisan, gender and age boundaries. There is no minority or majority in Taiwan. Taiwan is an
integral," he said.
"Let us hold our hands, a simple but warm act, to tell the world and all people who care about Taiwan that 'we love Taiwan and want peace'."
The protest, running from Keelung in the north to Pingtung in the south of the island, was called on the anniversary of February 28, 1947 when
thousands of native Taiwanese were killed by KMT troops from the mainland in a bloody riot against the new rulers of China.
The episode poisoned relations between the KMT and native Taiwanese for decades.
Television pictures showed crowds at least 10 deep at points on the route through Taiwan as pro-government supporters joined hands at 2:28 pm (0628
In the capital Taipei, thousands wearing "Yes Taiwan" caps gathered at the 2/28 peace memorial park, named after the 1947 incident, for speeches.
Taiwanese communities were also due to form human chains in Dallas, Houston, Seattle, Toronto and Vancouver, the organisers said.
The opposition KMT has accused the DPP of creating an ethnic divide and organised its own show of support with leader Lien part of a group carrying
"peace torches" into a rally in the southern city of Kaohsiung.
The torches had been taken on a two-week jog around the island by supporters.
In a statement released before the rallies, Lien made his own appeal to heal wounds among the island's different ethnic groups. "Everyone on Taiwan
is native Taiwanese sailing together through glory and humiliation and sharing the same destiny," he said.
Chen has called the island's first referendum to run alongside the presidential poll and an estimated 15 million voters will be asked whether the
island should arm itself with more missiles and hold peace talks with Beijing.
Chen has toned down his pro-independence message in the face of opposition from home and abroad, but increased his attacks on China in the run-up to
Wu Tung-yeh, a professor of political science at National Chengchi University, said the rally would help the DPP campaign although it was too early to
say if it would influence the polls.
"It is unlikely this rally will win over any of KMT's supporters. It may have some effect on neutral voters, but it is hard to tell how many they
can win," Wu said.
Cheng Wen-tsan, a spokesman for the DPP, predicted the rally would catapult Chen into the lead of the closely fought contest.
"The target of the demonstration and the referendum is China, not the KMT. KMT has made a huge mistake by refusing to take part in this activity,"
KMT spokesman Alex Tsai said the protest would have no effect on the vote on March 20.
[Edited on 28-2-2004 by Zion Mainframe]