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December 1, 1999
INDIA & THE WTO
Protests in Seattle delay meetings
Robert Evans in Seattle
A meeting of world trade leaders got off to a delayed start yesterday amid chaos from massive protests that choked this port city and imprisoned many conference delegates in their hotels for hours.
The streets of Seattle were shrouded in clouds of tear gas as armed police battled with demonstrators who forced the cancellation of the opening ceremony of the World Trade Organisation by blocking key street intersections.
''What we're seeing on the streets is the deep concern and uncertainty that the benefits of globalisation have not sufficiently reached the people of the world,'' said International Labour Organisation Director-General Juan Somavia.
''Whose world? Our world. Whose streets? our streets,'' chanted protesters, who say free trade benefits big business at the expense of the environment, jobs and communities.
The demonstrations forced the WTO to postpone and then cancel its opening ceremony, which had been scheduled for 10 am (local time 1800 GMT), finally moving straight to negotiating sessions.
''The negotiating groups are in full swing. This conference will be a success,'' defiant WTO Director-General Mike Moore said.
''It's obviously very unfortunate that the sessions have been delayed, but the meetings will go on and we all realise the tremendous importance of success,'' Deputy US Treasury Secretary Stuart Eizenstat said.
US trade representative Charlene Barshefsky was among those kept in her hotel by the protests, US and WTO officials said. ''We stopped them,'' a gleeful speaker at a rally near the Paramount Theatre said.
Police said they were using two types of pepper spray, one which is fired as a spray and the other which is shot as a plastic projectile containing pepper spray. They had also fired small rubber pellets, which they described as ''stingers.''
A 55-year-old college teacher among the protesters said had been hit by a police projectile. ''I heard a pop and next thing I know my leg was hurting,'' he said.
Despite the protests, President Bill Clinton still planned to attend the meeting, a spokesman said. ''The President is going to Seattle, full stop,'' said White House spokesman Jake Siewert, who was travelling with Clinton in San Francisco.
Separately, but adding to the confusion, around 16,000 people marched through the city in a demonstration organised by the AFL-CIO labour confederation, which wants labour issues included in trade talks.
Earlier, the protesters took over at least five city intersections and chanted, sang and danced outside the theatre where the opening ceremony of the WTO ministerial meeting was to take place.
Police and demonstrators had faced off peacefully for about 2-1/2 hours before police finally began to move in at around 10 am (local time 800 GMT).
The Paramount Theatre and the Seattle Conference Centre where the meetings were to be held were surrounded by phalanxes of armed police wearing gas masks. Armoured cars and mounted police were also deployed.
Police warned delegates to stay in their hotels for their own safety and accused protesters of attacking some trade officials.
A Colombian delegation headed by Foreign Trade Minister Martha Lucia Ramirez was assailed by demonstrators who banged on the roof of their car. ''We were attacked by people with masks,'' a Colombian diplomat said.
Other delegates expressed their extreme frustration at the delay. ''I've never seen any meeting of this sort so badly organised and mishandled,'' said one senior developing country ambassador who heads his delegation at the WTO in Geneva. ''I'm convinced the Americans have let this happen to reduce the time available for negotiation and make it easier for them to put pressure on us to give in on issues vital to us,'' he added.
In Washington, President Clinton said he sympathised with protesters and said trade agreements should take into consideration labour and environmental concerns.
The trade ministers were meeting to set the agenda for a new round of negotiations aimed at cutting tariffs and other barriers in a broad range of sectors from agriculture to electronic commerce.
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