Protesters fight with police outside Hong Kong WTO meeting

Several dozen protesters, mainly South Korean farmers, struck security forces with bamboo sticks and tried to ram through a police roadblock Tuesday as the World Trade Organization began meeting in Hong Kong. Riot police with helmets and shields fended off the protesters with pepper spray a few blocks away from WTO's meeting venue near downtown Hong Kong. The scuffle lasted about a half-hour and died down as police reinforcements arrived.

It wasn't immediately clear if there were any injuries, but the pepper spray left several demonstrators staggering in pain and rubbing their eyes as other protesters poured bottled water on their faces. The protesters, who also included Japanese, Indian, Filipino and Brazilian farmers, also burned a coffin that was used as a protest prop during a street march that began earlier in the afternoon.

The farmers fear that if their domestic agricultural markets are opened up under a new WTO treaty, they won't be able to compete, and possibly lose their livelihoods and land.

Before the clash, dozens of the South Korean farmers jumped into Victoria Harbor wearing orange life jackets and tried to swim a few 100 meters (yards) along the coast to the WTO venue. They chanted slogans and punched their fist in the air while they swam, and one carried a South Korean flag. Police intercepted them before they reached the venue.

Police spent several months preparing for violent protests that have become a tradition at WTO meetings in recent years. The rowdy demonstrations could pose a serious test for Hong Kong security forces, who have little experience controlling large, unruly crowds in this global financial capital.

The hundreds of South Korean protesters who have arrived here have attracted the most attention because of their reputation for being organized and violent.

John Tsang, Hong Kong's secretary for commerce, said he was disappointed by the violence and noted that most protesters have been peaceful. But he warned, "We will take bold actions to stop any violence and disruptive behavior."

The WTO meeting aims to lay the groundwork for a treaty by the end of 2006 that would cut trade barriers across a wide array of sectors, from agriculture to services, wrapping up the so-called Doha round of talks.

Agriculture has been a major stumbling block, with developing nations accusing the U.S., EU and other rich economies of not cutting agricultural tariffs and farm subsidies enough, blocking access to their markets.

Tae-sook Lee, the head of a South Korean farmers' association, said, "We are here to protest the WTO because the WTO wants to impose other country's rice and food on South Korea. If the WTO allows imports of foreign rice and food into Korea, 100 percent of 3.5 Korean farmers will die." Brazilian farmer Jose Valdir Minerovsk said, "In Brazil, millions of small farmers have been forced to move from the rural areas because of this (open markets)." But WTO chief Pascal Lamy said in a speech Tuesday that free trade helps more people than it hurts, reports the AP. I.L.

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