Durban braced for a week of summit hell

 

DURBAN, South Africa, Aug 28 (AFP) - South Africa's Indian Ocean port of Durban faced a week of traffic chaos as leaders from 113 countries began arriving Friday for a meeting of non-aligned nations.

The city, one of South Africa's premier tourist traps, is bracing for an invasion of some 6,000 VIPs and media which will test its hospitality -- and the patience of its motorists -- to the limit.

Many any city-centre roads have been turned into virtual no-go areas for Durban's 2.5 million inhabitants while the beachfront metropolis has become a city of a thousand wailing sirens as police escorts bring the first of the delegates into the downtown International Convention Centre.

Police warned that security will be tight, following what many here believe was South Africa's first brush with international terrorism with the bombing Tuesday of a US-style restaurant in Cape Town, and the twin bombings of US embassies in Nairobi and Dar-es-Salaam.

The surrounds of the International Convention Centre where the serious business of the summit begins Saturday, was sealed off by police on Friday, as motorcycle outriders prepared to escort buses and official cars beginning a week-long shuttle to the airport.

The small international airport will be stretched to its limits by the arrival of 45 official planes carrying heads of state, who begin arriving on Tuesday. An Air Force hangar at the airport has been converted into a dedicated terminal for NAM delegates.

The top eight hotels in the city have been reserved entirely for the official delegations.

There have been teething problems. A computer failure delayed accreditation for thousands of journalists and delegates who milled around desks staffed by some of the 2,500 local "service providers" recruited locally.

The official list of 102 foreign ministers due to begin meeting here Monday carries the name of Bizima Karaha, a former minister in President Laurent Kabila's cabinet who early last month defected to join a rebellion fighting to overthrow the Democratic Republic of Congo government.

Whatever the diplomatic hiccups preceding the summit, the motorists face gridlock in the streets.

City traffic chief, police Chief Inspector Derek Moorhouse appealed for public patience. "The life of the city must go on, but we will have to close roads for the official motorcades.

"NAM is a special event. Notwithstanding the hiccups, the summit is without doubt the biggest opportunity to showcase South Africa," he added.

Durban is the third African city to host a Non-Aligned Movementsummit, following Lusaka in 1970 and Harare in 1986.

The city knows how to put on a welcome, hosting 1.7 million tourists every year, making it South Africa's only city capable of organising such a meeting, according to its proud mayor Obed Mlaba.

South Africa is paying dearly for the privilege, with the cost currently put at 10 million dollars by the foreign ministry. The city hopes to recoup an estimated seven million dollars in return business.