Several dozen protesters struck security forces with bamboo sticks and tried to ram through a police roadblock Tuesday as the World Trade Organization meeting opened in Hong Kong.
The confrontation occurred after thousands of protesters marched through the city against the WTO and globalization, which many of them believe benefit primarily the rich and powerful. Protesters — mainly South Korean farmers — punched their fists in the air, beat drums and gongs and waved signs reading "RIP WTO" and "World Threatening Organization."
Police said the protest, which also included Japanese, Indian, Filipino and Brazilian farmers, drew 4,500 people. Organizers put the turnout at 5,200.
A few blocks from the WTO meeting venue, riot police with helmets and shields tried to fend off stick-wielding protesters with pepper spray. The scuffle lasted about a half-hour and died down as police reinforcements arrived.
No serious injuries were reported, but the pepper spray left several demonstrators staggering and rubbing their eyes as others poured bottled water on their faces.
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 could lose their land and livelihood.
Earlier, police intercepted dozens of South Korean farmers who jumped into Victoria Harbor and tried to swim a few hundred yards along the coast to the WTO venue. Two of the swimmers became ill in the cold water and were briefly hospitalized.
Police have blocked off access to roads near the conference site and set up barricades in an effort to prevent violence that has flared at previous WTO summits.
Meanwhile, the WTO meeting opened with rich and poor nations still at odds over agricultural trade, the major sticking point that has held up world trade negotiations for months.
The deadlock threatens to undermine — or even derail — the six-day Hong Kong meeting, which was originally meant to lay the groundwork for a global treaty by the end of 2006 that would cut trade barriers across a wide array of sectors, from agriculture to services.
Developing nations accuse the United States, European Union and other rich countries of not cutting agricultural tariffs and farm subsidies enough, keeping out exports from poorer nations.
"This meeting has already been downgraded as a midterm stocktaking," said Mari Pangestu, Indonesia's trade minister, who heads a grouping of 45 poorer countries within the WTO.
However, eager to show some positive progress, the EU and Japan have urged nations to embrace a proposal allowing free market access for products from the world's least developed countries — a move that could prevent an outright collapse of the talks but would put off dealing with more intractable issues, reports the AP.
Photo: the AP