Dozens of diplomats, including Britain's UN ambassador in Geneva, walked out of a speech by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad this afternoon when the Iranian president accused Israel of being "a totally racist" regime.
The address at a UN conference on racism in Geneva was disrupted by protesters who heckled Ahmadinejad after he branded Israel a "cruel and oppressive racist regime". He said the state of Israel was created "on the pretext of Jewish suffering" from the second world war.
Peter Gooderham, the UK ambassador to the UN in Geneva, walked out along with representatives from France, Spain and several other European countries. One shook his fist at the Iranian president as he left. The delegates said they planned to return to the session as soon as Ahmadinejad had finished speaking.
European countries had been split over whether to attend amid fears Ahmadinejad and other delegates could ignite a new row over the Holocaust or Israel's right to exist.
Germany, Poland and the Netherlands were joining a boycott led by the US and Israel. France and Britain attended but promised to walk out of the conference if offensive language was used at the podium.
The protesters leapt to their feet and shouted "racist" in French at Ahmadinejad when he made his remarks about the state of Israel.
Some wore clown wigs and one, who was positioned among the delegates, managed to run to within 10 yards of the Iranian president before throwing a soft red object, hitting the podium and interrupting his speech. The protester was ushered out by security.
The protesters said they represented the Union of Jewish Students in France. "We did it because it's all a farce," Joelle Jakubowicz said. "You can't fight racism if you are racist yourself."
France's foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, speaking before Ahmadinejad's speech, said "we will not tolerate any blunder or provocation" from Ahmadinejad, who has referred to the Holocaust as a myth and called for Israel to be "wiped off the pages of history".
If Ahmadinejad "proffers any racist or antisemitic accusations we will leave the hall immediately", Kouchner said.
The Iranian president, the only head of state at the conference, is due to give a press conference today, which coincides with the start of Israel's Holocaust Remembrance Day.
The Foreign Office said in a statement, also released before the speech: "The United Kingdom has argued strongly for the concluding document to contain adequate language on Holocaust remembrance and combating antisemitism. We will find unacceptable any attempt to use the Durban process to trivialise or deny the Holocaust, or to renegotiate agreements on the fight against antisemitism."
A flurry of late-night telephone calls between European foreign ministries failed to salvage what British officials hoped would be a common European position, amid growing unease about what Ahmadinejad would say and fears that a draft text from the UN anti-racism conference would single out Israel and call for bans on the freedom to express criticism of religion.
Israel today announced it was recalling its ambassador to Switzerland for consultations. Israel's prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, said that while Israel would be commemorating 6 million Jews killed by the Nazis, "in Switzerland the guest of honour is a racist and a Holocaust denier who doesn't conceal his intention to wipe Israel off the face of this Earth".
The US said on Saturday that it would not be attending today's UN conference because of what Washington said was "objectionable" language in a draft statement. The Geneva meeting is known as the Durban Review Conference because it is intended to follow up a world conference against racism held in the South African city eight years ago, when the US and Israel walked out in anger at attempts to equate Zionism with racism.
One person not boycotting the conference was the film star Jon Voight, a staunch supporter of Israel who said he had come to confront Ahmadinejad's position on the Holocaust. Voight told the Guardian: "The fox is in charge of the hen house here. This is supposed to be about human rights, but hidden under that banner is antisemitism. Someone has to respond to it."
The draft statement for this week's conference does not single out Israel but formally upholds the 2001 declaration, which does. The UN high commissioner for human rights, Navi Pillay, said she was "shocked and deeply disappointed" by the US boycott. On the Guardian's Comment is Free website today, Pillay concedes that the 2001 meeting has been "tainted by the antisemitic behaviour of some NGOs on the sidelines", but she argues that the best way to tackle such issues is to participate in this week's meeting.
That position was echoed today by Human Rights Watch. Juliette de Rivero, the group's Geneva advocacy director, said: "The sad truth is that countries professing to want to avoid a reprise of the contentious 2001 racism conference are now the ones triggering the collapse of a global consensus on the fight against racism."
British officials say the current draft text is acceptable if "adequate language" is included on the Holocaust and antisemitism, but they are also anxious to retain European solidarity.
Ahmadinejad's speech and press conference will be carefully scrutinised for his tone towards the US after Barack Obama's recent overtures to Tehran.
The Iranian president has ruled out compromise on Iran's nuclear programme, but has occasionally raised hopes of a thaw in US-Iranian relations, as he did yesterday when he insisted that an Iranian-American journalist, sentenced by an Iranian court to eight years in prison on espionage charges, should be guaranteed the full right to defend herself in her appeal. The Iranian government today urged Obama not to comment on the case.