Thousands of protesters are expected on the streets of Belfast to urge G8 leaders to act on global poverty, although the issue looks likely to be overshadowed by concerns over the Syria conflict.
Police in the Northern Ireland capital expect 10,000 people to join two demonstrations organised by trade unions and campaigners against global hunger ahead of the G8 summit on Monday and Tuesday.
The British-controlled province, still suffering sectarian violence despite a peace deal in 1998, has organised its biggest-ever police operation for the talks, with 8,000 officers deployed.
They will be split between Belfast and the luxury Lough Erne resort where the G8 leaders, including US President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, will be staying.
British Prime Minister David Cameron, who is hosting the summit, is pushing for agreement on his three G8 priorities of trade, tax and transparency.
In a newspaper interview published on Saturday, he revealed plans to require companies in Britain to register their ultimate beneficiaries to make it harder to avoid tax, and said he would urge his G8 colleagues to adopt a similar approach.
There was progress late Friday towards what he has admitted would be the biggest prize of the summit — the start of formal negotiations between the European Union and the United States on a free trade agreement.
EU trade ministers finally thrashed out a deal on how to negotiate for a deal, after meeting a French demand to exclude the key audiovisual sector.
But the Syrian conflict looks set to dominate the talks after Washington upped the ante by pledging military aid to rebels seeking to oust President Bashar al-Assad.
The White House said for the first time on Thursday that the regime had used chemical weapons, notably sarin gas, on multiple occasions against the opposition — crossing what it has described as a red line.
The issue of Syria topped the agenda of an hour-long pre-summit videoconference on Friday between Obama and the leaders of France, Germany, Britain and Italy.
“They discussed the situation in Syria and how G8 countries should all agree to work on together a political transition to end the conflict,” a spokeswoman for Cameron’s Downing Street office said.
Officials said Washington would increase military support to the rebels, a move welcomed by Britain and France who successfully pushed for a lifting of the EU arms embargo on Syria last month.
Damascus rejected the US accusations as “lies”, while Moscow, a key player because of its long-standing support for Assad, said they were “unconvincing” and hurt efforts to make peace.
Russian President Vladimir Putin will meet Cameron in London for pre-summit talks on Sunday and then hold a bilateral with Obama in Belfast on Monday.
The US and Russian leaders will kick-start the G8 discussions on Syria, which British officials hope will get all parties in the conflict closer to the negotiating table.
Moscow and Washington have jointly proposed a peace conference in Geneva, building on a similar meeting last year, but no date has yet been set.