ENNISKILLEN, Northern Ireland (AP) — Leaders of eight of the world's wealthiest nations sought elusive progress on lowering trans-Atlantic trade barriers and pushing the warring factions in Syria toward the negotiating table as the G-8 summit opened Monday amid high security in peaceful Northern Ireland.
Ahead of the official welcome gathering, British Prime Minister David Cameron and U.S. President Barack Obama appealed to their colleagues to draw inspiration from Northern Ireland's efforts to reconcile British Protestants and Irish Catholics following decades of bloodshed.
Obama, flying into Belfast with his wife and daughters on Marine One, told an audience packed with 1,800 teenagers from dozens of largely segregated schools that Northern Ireland's young generation must take the lead in building on the U.K. region's U.S.-brokered Good Friday peace accord of 1998.
Then Obama and Cameron together visited one of Northern Ireland's relatively few integrated elementary schools designed to mix children from both sides of the community.
Referring to Northern Ireland's ability to leave behind a four-decade conflict that claimed 3,700 lives, Cameron said leaders of the Group of Eight wealthy nations should be inspired by the setting — a golf resort in the lush lakelands of County Fermanagh — to deliver their own economic and peacemaking breakthroughs.
"Ten or 20 years ago, a G-8 in Fermanagh would have been unimaginable. But today Northern Ireland is a very different place ... a symbol of hope to the world," Cameron said.
Cameron, Obama and European Union leaders were expected to unveil a formal agreement Monday to open negotiations on forging an EU-U.S. free trade pact designed to slash tariffs, boost exports and fuel badly needed economic growth.
Those EU-U.S. talks could start next month, with the end of 2014 a tentative goal for a deal that would lower prices on European and American imports and stimulate growth.
That's the easy part of the agenda. Later Monday over a working dinner, President Vladimir Putin and Russia's support for the Syrian government will be on the menu.
Cameron said he wanted the summit to deliver a firm plan for promoting multi-faction talks in Geneva. Moscow officially shares that goal but keeps shipping military aid to the army of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Following a frosty Putin-Cameron meeting Sunday in London, the Russian leader remains opposed to plans by the West to start shipping weapons to rebels struggling to topple Assad.
Obama announced Friday that the U.S. would start sending weaponry, while Britain and France remained concerned that the firepower might end up helping anti-democratic extremists linked to Iran and Lebanon's Hezbollah militia.
Cameron said Syria deserved "a government that represents them, rather than a government that's trying to butcher them."
"We shouldn't accept that the only alternative to Assad is terrorism and violence. We should be on the side of Syrians who want a democratic and peaceful future for their country and one without the man who is currently using chemical weapons against them," Cameron said.
Russia's envoy for G-8 matters, Alexei Kvasov, said Russia would not shift its position in response to strong Western rhetoric and dismissed U.S. and French claims that the Syrian army had used chemical weapons against civilians.
"Emotions are flying high over Syria, but I wouldn't view those emotions too seriously," Kvasov told reporters. "We need to find common ground, and there is some. No one would contest the fact that there is a humanitarian crisis there and it's necessary to offer relief, to try to help reduce human suffering."
Kvasov compared the claims of Syrian chemical weapons use with U.S. claims in 2003, later proved false, that Iraq's Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction.
Protesters demanding Western intervention in Syria erected a field of white crosses near Belfast City Hall to symbolize the estimated death toll of 93,000 from the two-year war.
In a lighter-hearted vein, eight other G-8 protesters sailed past the Enniskillen media center in a Viking-style longboat and donned massive heads depicting each of the summit leaders. They hoisted a banner that read "End tax dodging," referring to multinational companies' use of complex tax laws to shelter their profits beyond the reach of national tax authorities.
Northern Ireland's police stepped up security dramatically ahead of the leaders' arrival at the Lough Erne resort west of Enniskillen. Four-member units in body armor and armed with handguns and submachine guns parked armored cars on every intersection and side street in this rural market town of barely 15,000 residents.
Officers on foot patrol prodded hedgerows and the front gardens of brick row houses for potential explosive devices, but found nothing suspicious. Such precautions reflected the continued low-level activity of Irish Republican Army splinter groups that rejected the 2005 decision of most IRA members to formally abandon their campaign to force Northern Ireland into the Republic of Ireland.
More than 3,500 officers from Britain have been imported to double the security detail, and British army engineers have helped to erect a daunting perimeter of steel fences and coiled razor wire for miles (kilometers) around the resort's lone road entrance.
Air space over much of Northern Ireland is being restricted to summit traffic for the duration of the meetings, which conclude Tuesday. And the water around the resort's peninsula has been similarly closed to civilians, with police patrolling by boat, although the public is still free to fish from shore.
The police commander of G-8 security, Assistant Chief Constable Alistair Finlay, said he expects peace to reign when socialist and anti-globalization protesters march Monday night from central Enniskillen to the fence.
Finlay said while officers had trained to manage crowds of more than 10,000 protesters, this was unlikely to materialize Monday, with just 2,000 expected and few anti-G-8 activists traveling from continental Europe for the occasion.
Cameron said he also hoped to achieve agreement that no G-8 member should pay ransoms to secure the release of hostages in North Africa, where western and Asian workers are top targets for kidnappers.
Associated Press writers David McHugh, Cassandra Vinograd and Vladimir Isachenkov in Enniskillen contributed to this report.
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