(11-22) 20:06 PST COLUMBUS, Ga. (AP) --
Demonstrators gathered outside Fort Benning to protest a military school were hit with a sonic barrage Saturday: patriotic music Army officials had blaring from the main gate.
A crowd estimated by Columbus police at 8,000 gathered to protest the school once known as the School of the Americas, which they blame for Latin American human rights abuses. It appeared to be the largest first-day gathering in the 14-year history of the protest.
The Army's loudspeakers, playing "The Army Song" and "God Bless the U.S.A.," were 50 yards away from where protesters were speaking to the crowd.
Leaders of School of Americas Watch, which has protested at Fort Benning every year since the early 1990s, said they planned to sue over the noise tactic and accused the Army of a "psychological operation."
"There's a lot of ill will being caused that's not necessary," said the Rev. Ray Bourgeois, SOA Watch founder. "The closer we get to closing that school down, the meaner they get."
"We figure if they can play their music, we can play ours," post spokesman Rich McDowell said. The Army said the music came from a tape made by the wife of a Fort Benning soldier currently serving in Iraq.
School of the Americas Watch holds the demonstrations every November to mark the killings of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter in El Salvador on Nov. 19, 1989.
Some of the killers had attended the school, which moved to Fort Benning from Panama in 1984 and is now under the jurisdiction of the Defense Department as the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation.
On Saturday, four protesters were stopped by the post's security for attempting to enter the fort's Highway 27 entrance. They were arrested for trespassing and taken by U.S. Marshals to the Muscogee County Jail, McDowell said.
McDowell added that officials at the post in west-central Georgia hope organizers of the two-day protest manage crowd control as in past years. Nearly 200 people were arrested in Miami in past week during protests against negotiations for the Free Trade Area of the Americas.
"We're on our side, just keeping an eye on them," McDowell said. "We would like to see this get over with as peacefully as possible. We don't have any reason to think it won't."
About 7,000 attended last year's protest, including 84 who were arrested for trespassing on military property.
McDowell said the post would not play music during Sunday's religious-themed services, including protesters' solemn procession to the post gate.
©2003 Associated Press