Celebration set aside as inappropriate, Washington somber during NATO summit

Feared traffic jams, terrorist incidents fail to materialize

April 24, 1999|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- About 70 school kids from Baldwin, N.Y., were unable to take a White House tour yesterday because of the security surrounding NATO's 50th Anniversary Summit.

So, instead, they found alternate entertainment: counting sharpshooters.

A macabre way to experience the nation's capital, but perfectly in keeping with the mood at the start of the three-day NATO event.

The anniversary gathering -- once billed as a celebration of the alliance -- felt more like a high-security war conference.

With the crisis in Kosovo providing the mood music, there was little to celebrate. A plan to feature Whitney Houston at a NATO dinner tonight was dashed long ago, as were ideas for a black-tie banquet and an elaborate outdoor NATO gala on the White House grounds.

Even a local peace protest lacked a certain ceremony: Actor Alec Baldwin, invited to speak, never showed up.

Instead, yesterday was marked by cautiously half-smiling world leaders, city streets cleared of all traffic by security teams, and sober-faced guards at every corner.

"We're not allowed to run because security will think we're being chased," said Amanda Hayde, 14, a student from Baldwin Middle School on Long Island.

With many exhibits on the National Mall closed, her classmates spent the morning visiting the handful of open museums and peering toward building rooftops to spot anti-terrorist sharpshooters. They thrilled every time patrol helicopters flew low over the city. At other times, they tried to get close enough to bomb-sniffing dogs to pet them.

The much-predicted traffic jams downtown never materialized, and instead the streets were quiet and largely deserted. Thousands of federal workers -- and all city public school children -- were given the day off because of concerns over traffic and terrorism threats.

No major crime incidents were reported. Spent casings from a 9 mm gun were found near the Willard Hotel, but a Secret Service spokesman said authorities found "absolutely no security threat."

At a rally for Kosovo in Lafayette Park, across the street from the White House, participants said a fistfight broke out between the Albanians and a few Serbs who crashed the event. But city police reported no arrests.

Washington was awash in authority. The U.S. Park Police imported officers from other states. All city police reported to work. The Secret Service and the military were on patrol. Also on site: French army guards, invited for NATO, dressed in tan kepis with red piping.

But it was not all guns and guards. At the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center, where the summit is being held, Ann Hand, a local jewelry designer, was hawking a $125 gold bead necklace with the "NATO 50" logo at the throat. She said she was donating a portion of the profits to refugees in Kosovo.

In general, vendors were not invited to sell tchotchkes -- though the U.S. Postal Service came close. It decided not to market NATO commemorative stamps, given the serious tone of the event, but then went on to hawk silk-screened ties with James Dean, Bugs Bunny and other characters who appear on stamps instead.

For local vendors, however, the NATO event made for a rough day.

"We're really not busy at all," said Eunice Ofori, who works at All American Donuts in the Reagan building. NATO customers did not buy up the $1.99 giant red, white and blue doughnut, made in honor of NATO, and few took advantage of the shop's extra hours.

The mood was all business.

"If Kosovo didn't exist we'd be having a Happy Birthday party," said Turkish journalist Stelyo Berberakis, between puffs on a Dunhill cigarette. "But nothing like that here."

Instead of opening with an outdoor ceremony and flyover of NATO warplanes, as once planned, the summit convened with a three-hour meeting on Kosovo. Even at the parties, pageantry is being kept to a minimum. State Department protocol chief Mary Mel French made last-minute alterations to keep the weekend dinners at the White House from seeming too festive.

"We tried to seat people where they can visit and do work," French said of the events.

Between bites of crisp soft-shell crab and cucumber mint coulis at last night's dinner, the conversation was supposed to be about work. "Really more than usual this is a working event," said French. "We were thinking of the tone of the event."

War was the prevailing theme of the day. In a darkened computer room, the U.S. military's Joint Training and Analysis Center was showcasing its war-related computer technology. The military had set up a conflict in a pretend nation, dubbed "Azure" -- made up of regions such as "Randomland" and "Turquoise Province" -- to demonstrate defense software.

Canadian soldiers in combat boots mingled with Spaniards in fatigues to survey the maps of "Azure," which was actually a composite of the landscapes of Oregon and other Western states.

"It's kind of fun," said Maj. Becky Colaw, who was giving tours of the display. About as much fun as most anyone at this somber summit was going to have.

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