February 21, 2005 10:28 pm

Mainz residents told not to take a peek at president

For residents of Mainz, George W. Bush's seven-hour visit to Germany on Wednesday and his short meeting with Gerhard Schröder, chancellor, will mean one of two things: a headache or a holiday.

Between the US president's 9.45am landing at Frankfurt airport and his afternoon departure, the sleepy Rhineland town and birthplace of Gutenberg will turn into a steel fortress.

In a contemporary echo of the Lady Godiva legend, anyone living on the route of the presidential motorcade is being discouraged from taking a peek at the 60- to 80-strong column of vehicles conveying the US president. In police leaflets, residents have been asked to keep their windows shut and stay clear of balconies “to avoid misunderstandings”.

Stores and restaurants in the “red zone”, the high-security area centred on Mainz's electoral palace, have been advised to close for the day as part of the biggest security operation in the country's postwar history. “They told us we could stay open if we liked but that nobody would be allowed in the area. It did not seem to make much business sense,” said Bozo Vukoja, owner of the Am-Fischtor Croatian restaurant in the red zone.

Neither driving nor parking will be allowed in the zone, where garages have been emptied, mailboxes unbolted and 1,300 manhole covers sealed.

To keep all travel options open for the president, four highway sections east of the city will be blocked to traffic. Schools will be shut and many workers will be taking a “Bush day”. The nearby Opel and Nescafé plants decided to move their shifts or suspend production.

“Up to 3m commuters in the Rhine-Main triangle will be affected,” Hartmut Mehdorn, head of Deutsche Bahn, the railway group, told Financial Times Deutschland, the FT's sister newspaper in Germany. “This is not the best way to make friends in Germany.”

A foretaste of the experience can be gleaned on Tuesday in Brussels, Mr Bush's first stop on his European tour, where the entire European district will be sealed off for the visit.

The European Union has sent home thousands of staff, apparently to keep underground car parks clear. Civil servants were supposed to be working from home, although the empty streets yesterday suggested some had decided to havean extended weekend.

Slovakia, where Mr Bush meets Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, on the last leg of his tour, is preparing the tightest security measures in its history.

Although the country has no history of terrorism, more than 5,300 policemen will be deployed, supported by 400 soldiers, 400 firemen and elite anti-chemical forces.

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