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Milan braces for protests ahead of Expo 2015

A large crowd of protesters has marched through Milan on the eve of the opening of Expo 2015. The demonstration comes ahead of a much larger protest against the global culture and technology showcase planned for Friday.

Italian media reported that between several hundred and 2,000 protesters, including Italian students and foreigners from Germany and France, marched through the northern Italian city of Milan on Thursday.

Police sealed off the city center and stopped traffic to allow the largely peaceful demonstration to pass by. However, officers intervened when a group of protesters wearing masks and hoods reportedly threw paint at a branch of state owned energy company Edel. Others tried to spray paint and smash the windows of an office belonging to Manpower, an Expo partner company which ran temporary employment for the project.

The demonstration was the first in a series of demos planned around Friday's grand opening of Expo 2015. The event's theme, "Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life," has attracted criticism from a broad array of environmentalist, anti-capitalist and anti-globalization groups who argue there's a big business agenda behind the green-tinged slogan.

More than 145 countries are

participating in the exhibition

, which is expected to draw some 20 million visitors to Italy's business capital by the time its run finishes in October. Ten million tickets have already been sold.

Expo 2015 is the

first world fair since Shanghai

five years ago, and has been hailed by Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi as a symbol of renewal for Italy's battered economy.

Tight security

A protester spray paints a storefront

Authorities fear protests on Friday could turn violent

Thousands of police and security personnel will be deployed on Friday, when supporters of the "NoExpo" movement are set to hold another march. Organizers say they expect up to 30,000 protesters to show up.

Many activists argue the exhibition is a waste of government funding, and comes at a time when

many Italians are struggling financially

. Protesters marching on Thursday also criticized the fact that many people working at the site of Expo 2015 do so for low wages or on a voluntary basis.

"We will be strict and severe in respecting the right to demonstrate, but also in respecting the rights of all others to enjoy this great opportunity," Interior Minister Angelino Alfano told German commercial television station RTL.

Earlier in the week Italian police seized fireworks, baseball bats and gas masks in a series of raids on groups suspected of planning violent protests. A German national was arrested for possession of explosive material and 26 other people, including 16 French nationals, were placed under investigation.

nm/bk (Reuters, AP, AFP, dpa)

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