THOUSANDS of schoolchildren brought Edinburgh city centre to a standstill for more than an hour in a massive anti-war protest.
Classrooms across the city were abandoned yesterday morning as teenagers came from all corners of Edinburgh to march on Princes Street where broadcaster and activist Mark Thomas and Scottish Socialist leader Tommy Sheridan were waiting to address them.
Brandishing banners which read "Not in my name" and "No war in Iraq", the youngsters were cheered by passers-by.
As the One O’clock Gun fired from Edinburgh Castle the children and adult peace activists who had joined them lay in the middle of the road to symbolise the deaths that would occur during the war.
One protester, Murray Maxwell, a 16-year-old pupil at James Gillespie’s High School, said: "We signed a petition and told the headteacher what we were going to do. I don’t think it’s right to be bombing people without this evidence. We just want to make our voices heard."
Robbie Hurley, 16, also a pupil at James Gillespie’s said: "I think it is terrible that people in Iraq are dying because of George Bush."
Mr Thomas called for a minute’s silence for all the Iraqi civilians who may be injured or killed.
He said: "People are now facing the prospect of being killed and maimed in an illegal, immoral, illogical war. The real criminals are Blair and Bush and we need to remember their actions are illegal."
Mr Sheridan denied accusations that the protesters were irresponsible.
He said: "Those who are irresponsible are Tony Blair and George Bush and the other politicians who are going to support the invasion of a country with 3000 bombs and missiles in the space of 48 hours.
"The people who will suffer is not the brutal dictator Saddam Hussein - it’s the ordinary young people of Iraq."
He told the teenagers they should be "proud of their actions" and added that their parents should be proud of them too. Many of the youngsters there did appear to have parental backing, with a number of mothers and fathers accompanying their children .
Fiona Kelly, a nurse from Musselburgh, was there in support of her son Eoin Wilson, a 14-year-old pupil at St David’s School. She said: "My son walked out of school to be here and I wanted to come with him as a mother in solidarity with my son."
But police and councillors expressed concern that more warning had not been given of plans for the protest, which attracted between 2000 and 3000 people.
The city’s culture and leisure leader, Steve Cardownie, said that plants around the Royal Scots War memorial, where many of the protesters had gathered, had been damaged.
And he added that while the destruction might not have been deliberate, had the council been contacted beforehand it could have been prevented.
A police spokesman said two people, one a man in his 30s, had been arrested for public order offences, but said the protest had taken place without major incident.
As the marchers left Princes Street they headed in different directions to continue their protest in various locations.
Around 1000 protesters, mostly children, gathered outside the Scottish Parliament on The Mound before heading off towards the American Consulate on Regent Terrace.
A line of police walked in front of the demonstrators before they turned off into Market Street, forcing the officers to run after them.
Officers linked arms and tried to prevent the protesters going any further but, as the crowd swelled, they broke through the police lines and ran ahead, leaving officers stranded in their wake.
Roy Jobson, Edinburgh City Council’s director of education, said: "We understand the human reaction to war but it is important that young people don’t abandon their studies.
"It is also important that the organisers act responsibly and don’t jeopardise the safety of young people."
The protest weaved its way through Edinburgh city centre halting traffic on route.
Cheers erupted from the activists when trapped motorists honked their horns in support as they made their way to the American Consulate.
Police initially blocked the demonstrators from getting into the road but the crowd set off down Regent Road, which runs parallel, before climbing up through the bushes to get to Regent Terrace.
Police formed two lines either side of the consulate building as the demonstrators chanted slogans, sang songs and burned miniature versions of the American flag. Police said no arrests were made and the protest, while noisy, was good natured.
Elsewhere, pupils and staff converged on the quadrangle on West Lothian College’s campus to pray for a peaceful end to the Iraq crisis.
Staff and students were led in prayer by Dr Marion Keston, one of the college’s chaplaincy team. Dr Keston also read a poem written by a student from a West Lothian school who hopes to study at the college.