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Monday, 09 June 2008

Bush's pledge fails to calm SKorea's beef protests

AFP, SEOUL - Street protests against US beef imports showed no sign of abating on Sunday despite President George W. Bush's pledge to help ease South Koreans' concerns over mad cow disease.

Thousands of protesters clashed with riot police in central Seoul in demonstrations that ran into the early hours of Sunday morning. At least 11 people were arrested.

Clashes eased as dawn broke but about 1,500 hardcore protesters were still on the streets urging President Lee Myung-Bak's government to renegotiate a deal reached in April to fully open its markets to US beef.

Protest organisers, who arranged the rally and march involving an estimated 40,000 people in downtown Seoul Saturday are pushing for an even bigger candlelit vigil on Tuesday.

President Bush on Saturday promised to help allay South Korean fears over beef imports during a 20-minute phone conversation with Lee, officials said.

Seoul had asked Washington not to export beef from cattle more than 30 months' old -- seen as more likely to be infected -- as a concession to public fears about mad cow disease.

"President Bush said he understood well South Koreans' concerns and worries and he will make sure that anything that should not be included in shipments is not shipped to South Korea," President Lee's office said.

"He also said he will have his administration come up with concrete measures aimed at preventing beef from cattle more than 30 months' old from being shipped to South Korea," it said.

The alleged US assurance, however, did little to calm protesters and the opposition parties, which continue to boycott parliament in protest.

"No sincerity was felt there," main opposition United Democratic Party chairman Sohn Hak-Kyu told reporters, referring to the Lee-Bush phone talks. "We need a concrete step to renegotiate the deal substantively."

"It's nothing but another trick," Joo Je-Joon, a leader of the People's Association Against Mad Cow Disease, which organises street protests, told Yonhap news agency.

He said it was not just the age of cattle but also "many other issues that people are concerned about but the government is turning a blind eye to."

Lee has insisted he will not re-negotiate the deal on US beef imports, saying any attempt to craft a new agreement could hurt South Korea by jeopardising a free trade pact with the United States.

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