updated 5/25/2008 3:12:53 PM ET 2008-05-25T19:12:53

Hundreds of South Korean protesters clashed with riot police early Monday during an illegal rally against a beef import agreement with the United States.

Riot police at the protest in downtown Seoul beat several protesters who were taken to nearby hospitals for treatment.

A policeman "shoved me and slammed his shield into my right side, and the pain is killing me," Cho Ik-bi, a 36-year-old businessman, told The Associated Press as he was taken to an ambulance.

A police officer at the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency declined to comment on the police violence. He requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to media.

Police detained 32 others for questioning, the officer said.

Early Sunday, police detained 37 other protesters at a separate rally urging the government to scrap a recent deal to resume imports of U.S. beef. Thousands of South Koreans have taken part in candlelight vigils against U.S. beef imports in recent weeks. The protesters have cited lingering mad cow disease concerns.

Questions of safety
President Lee Myung-bak last week sought to reassure the country on the safety of U.S. beef, but failed to ease public anger, fanned in part by media reports questioning the safety of the meat.

The protest movement is among the biggest domestic challenges faced by Lee in his first months in office.

Some 700 protesters marched through the capital until the early hours of the morning. Some of them called for Lee's resignation, saying he was sacrificing public safety for his political gains.

The South Korean government was preparing to make an official announcement on the resumption of American beef imports this week.

South Korea suspended U.S. beef imports after the first American case of mad cow disease appeared in December 2003 in a Canadian-born cow in Washington state.

Restricted imports of U.S. beef reached South Korean supermarkets last year, but further shipments were canceled in October after banned parts, such as bones, were found. An agreement reached last month sought to scrap nearly all the quarantine restrictions imposed by the previous government to guard against mad cow disease.

Scientists believe mad cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy, spreads when farmers feed cattle with recycled meat and bones from infected animals. In humans, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, a rare and fatal malady, is linked to eating meat products contaminated with the cattle disease.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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