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Hong Kong on alert as new WTO march begins

Thousand of demonstrators chanting “Down, down WTO” marched through Hong Kong on Sunday to protest against world trade talks after a night of vicious street battles between protesters and police.
South Korean protesters shout slogans in front of police officers, near the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Center, where WTO talks are being held, on Saturday.Lee Jin-man / AP
/ Source: Reuters

Thousand of demonstrators chanting “Down, down WTO” marched through Hong Kong on Sunday to protest against world trade talks after a night of vicious street battles between protesters and police.

Under the watchful eye of security forces, protesters began marching in mid-afternoon from a local park to an area near Hong Kong’s convention center, where ministers from nearly 150 countries were trying to hammer out a deal to lower barriers to world trade.

Some in the group sang songs while others carried a huge model of a giant spider, which they said depicted bloodthirsty rich nations feasting on poorer countries in the trade talks.

Reuters reporters said police had beefed up their forces in the area around the convention center, with armored cars blocking one street where savage fighting flared on Saturday night. No scuffles were reported.

More than 100 South Korean protesters were briefly stopped by police as they took a different route from the main group, but were allowed to continue when they said they were joining up with the others at a designated protest area.

Several hundred other demonstrators cancelled a planned march through the heart of the city a few miles away and held a rally instead, with rock music blaring from a stage and people shouting anti-free trade slogans.

One organizer said police had warned them that they would be stopped if more than 100 people marched. Police said the decision to call off the march was made by the organizing group.

Under siege
Protesters, including many Koreans, wielded bamboo sticks and metal poles on Saturday as they broke through police lines and tried to force their way into the harbor-front convention center. Police used pepper spray, batons and fire hoses to try to beat them back.

At one point, a large section of the city’s crowded Wanchai entertainment and office district was under siege and demonstrators came to within 30 yards of the convention center before tear gas drove them back, Reuters reporters said.

It was the worst street violence in the city in decades.

About 114 people were sent to hospital with mainly minor injuries, including 39 police officers, the government said. All but four were treated and released.

Many of the injured were South Korean farmers and workers who say freer trade is putting them out of business.

Nine hundred protesters, mostly Koreans, were arrested, police spokesman Alfred Ma told a news conference on Sunday.

It was not clear if the figure included over 100 demonstrators who spent a chilly night huddling in the street near the convention center, surrounded by riot police. Police herded the group into buses by early Sunday afternoon.

The South Korean news agency Yonhap said Seoul’s Foreign Ministry had contacted the Hong Kong authorities to seek a “smooth” settlement of the case.

Asked repeatedly if the arrested protesters would be charged or deported, Ma said: “All those who have been arrested will be handled in accordance with the laws of Hong Kong.”

Police arrests, detentions
Hong Kong Chief Executive Donald Tsang said police had detained a few hundred people but would not comment on whether foreigners who had been arrested would be deported.

“We are going through them carefully to see if we can identify those with sufficient evidence to have caused damage and attacked policeman. All will be dealt with as soon as possible within 48 hours. Those with sufficient evidence (against them) will go before the court,” he told reporters after visiting police near the convention center.

Saturday’s clashes were the heaviest since the WTO meeting began on Tuesday, but the fighting was less intense than that which marred the 1999 WTO conference in Seattle, the scene of huge and violent demonstrations against trade globalization.

Ma said that police would allow peaceful protests to proceed on Sunday, but they “would be prepared for any possible scenarios”.

Some Hong Kong residents were among those arrested, Ma added.

“We have advised members of the public not to participate in those activities,” Ma said, referring to Sunday’s demonstrations.