Police, protesters clash ahead of WTO conference

28 November, 2009

Police, protesters clash ahead of WTO conference
From correspondents in Geneva
Agence France-Presse
November 29, 2009 04:55am

SWISS police have fired tear gas and rubber bullets at hooded protesters who broke windows and set cars alight during a demonstration ahead of a major WTO conference in Geneva.

Thousands marched in the protest on Saturday ahead of the World Trade Organisation ministerial meeting beginning on Monday, with the vast majority of demonstrators not participating in the violence.

Organisers later decided to end the demonstration due to the violence and because police prevented the march from continuing to WTO headquarters, the Swiss ATS news agency reported.

About 200 violent protesters infiltrated the march and "began to inflict damage right from the start of the demonstration", police spokesman Patrick Puhl said. Police fired tear gas and rubber bullets to stop them.

Officers had moved in after protesters broke windows at a jewellery store, banks and a hotel.

Vehicles parked along the march route, particularly luxury cars, were damaged, with at least four set alight, Puhl said.

Organisers put the total number of protesters at 5000, while police said it was 3000.

Earlier, three South Koreans were barred from entering Switzerland for the protest after being accused of violent behaviour at past demonstrations, a police spokesman said.

Dosuk Han, head of the Korean League of Small Farmers, as well as Kangsil Lee and Jejoon Ju from a campaign group for farmers, were being held at the Geneva airport on Saturday, protest organisers said in a statement.

The organisers demanded their immediate release.

Next week's gathering falls on the 10th anniversary of the ministerial meeting in Seattle, which was marked by violent street protests.

More than a hundred ministers will gather for the WTO conference, though there have been concerns linked to the United States and European Union.

Diplomats in Geneva note that the fact the US still has no ambassador to the WTO is a sign President Barack Obama's administration has put little emphasis on trade talks at the moment.

Meanwhile, the European Union will lose its Trade Commissioner Catherine Ashton on the second day of the WTO ministerial, as she is due to step into her new post as foreign policy chief.

"It is true that the American administration's political calendar is currently more focused on the reform of the health system, the environment and financial regulation than on trade," WTO head Pascal Lamy said.

"But nevertheless, the United States is committed to the negotiations."

As for the European Union, he noted that Development Commissioner Karel de Gucht has been proposed to replace Ashton, calling him a "solid and skilful negotiator."