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Human chain protest spans Taiwan

Government supporters claim to have recruited more than 1 million people to form a human chain.
Government supporters claim to have recruited more than 1 million people to form a human chain.

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TAIPEI, Taiwan (Reuters) -- Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian and more than one million of his supporters have formed a human chain down the length of the island in its biggest ever protest against China.

The day-long demonstration to oppose China's deployment of nearly 500 missiles aimed at Taiwan is seen as Chen's best chance of rallying support for his re-election in a March 20 vote.

After saying prayers and releasing a flock of white doves in the morning, the protesters raised joined hands and shouted "Yes Taiwan," "Oppose Missiles" and "Love Peace" down the 500 km (310 mile) west coast of Taiwan.

"We formed a great wall of democracy and a great wall of peace," Chen told thousands of cheering supporters waving flags and blowing horns in the northern county of Miaoli.

"We showed the world our determination to recognise Taiwan and protect Taiwan," Chen said, flanked by former president Lee Teng-hui, who backs his re-election.

Chen's campaign is centred on a controversial referendum to be held during the election that will ask voters to back greater missile defences against China.

Beijing, which says Taiwan is a renegade province that must be reunited, by force if necessary, views the referendum as a dry run for a vote on independence that it says could lead to war.

The "Hand in Hand Taiwan" rally was inspired by a human chain in the Baltic states of Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania in 1989, when more than two million people called for independence from the Soviet Union.

Organisers say at least 1.2 million people had signed up for the event, which also marked the anniversary of the "2-28 incident" on February 28, 1947, when Chinese Nationalist troops crushed island-wide rioting by people angered by official graft.

"The DPP wants to reinforce the idea of Taiwan as an independent country against China," said Chao Chien-min, a political science professor at the National Chengchi University, referring to Chen's Democratic Progressive Party.

"The DPP aims to consolidate its core pro-independence supporters, who have been hit by the economic downturn and are less certain about voting for Chen this time," he said.

Taiwan split from China after a 1949 civil war, when Chiang Kai-shek's defeated Nationalist government retreated to the island. The Nationalists ruled Taiwan for more than five decades, until they were ousted by Chen in 2000.

Opinion polls show Chen and Nationalist candidate Lien Chan locked in a close race. A survey of 1,161 voters by the mass circulation United Daily News found 40 percent would vote for Lien against 37 percent for Chen.

"We fought hard for our democracy. If we don't stand up and let our voice be heard, China will not take us seriously. Our democracy will amount to nothing," said businessman Chang Ping-chen, who joined the chain in Taipei with 20 family members, including his 65-year-old father and two-year-old daughter.

Lien and tens of thousands of his supporters held a blood drive to commemorate the day, also known as Taiwan's Peace Memorial Day. They hugged each other at 2:28 p.m, to mark the anniversary of the "2-28 incident."

Copyright 2004 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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