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WTO nears deal amid protests



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World Trade Organization (WTO)
Hong Kong
International Trade

HONG KONG, China (CNN) -- Just one issue remained unresolved Sunday as World Trade Organization negotiators worked to reach a series of agreements to end agricultural, manufacturing and service trade barriers, according to a WTO official Sunday.

The issue yet to be settled is the date for ending agricultural export subsidies, WTO press officer Emmanuelle Ganne told CNN.

The dispute remained between Brazil and the European Union.

Earlier Sunday, the EU had suggested 2013 as a possible date to end the subsidies. Brazil, the United States and some developing countries maintain that year is too far away, and would rather end the subsidies by 2010.

Delegates tell CNN that a compromise could be reached, mandating the subsidies end progressively between 2010 and 2013.

Sunday is the sixth and last day of the WTO's ministerial-level meetings in Hong Kong. Delegates for 149 countries have gathered in Hong Kong.

Developing countries have demanded that richer nations lower trade barriers.

The talks have been marked by debate between the EU and the United States.

"We put on the table, not just the most aggressive proposal in terms of cutting subsidies, but the only proposal on the table that actually eliminates subsidies," U.S. trade representative Rob Portman told CNN.

"The stumbling block ... it's the fact that the Europeans refuse to open up their overly protected agricultural market. They don't want to do that. Until they're willing to cut their subsidies to open their market, we can't make progress on this."

While the negotiators struggled, disagreement also brewed in the street outside the talks, in the worst protests Hong Kong has seen in decades.

After warning hundreds of protesters paralyzing the city center for hours to leave the streets outside the talks, riot police moved in early Sunday to disperse the crowd.

The crowd gathered outside the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibit Center, however, did not go peacefully. Protesters continued banging drums and singing songs as some tussled with police.

But the protests never matched the level of violence that marred WTO talks in Seattle, Washington, in 1999 and Cancun, Mexico, in 2003.

The demonstrators included many South Korean farmers who came to the WTO conference to voice their displeasure with globalization and imports, topics high on the conference agenda.

The farmers oppose a number of measures, including lower trade barriers for agricultural imports, which they say would flood South Korea with cheap rice and force the nation's farmers out of business -- a concern echoed by anti-globalization groups around the world. (WTO: No firm date for farm rules)

Around 3:30 a.m. (2:30 p.m. ET), police moved into the fray, linking hands to form a cordon around the activists, then dragging them out and into nearby police vans.

The melee, which followed violence at Saturday's demonstrations, prompted protest leaders to consider abandoning Sunday's anti-WTO march, said Elizabeth Tang, a spokeswoman for the Hong Kong People's Alliance on the WTO.

Tang added that she would contact leaders of individual protest organizations to determine if they would participate in the 2 p.m. (1 a.m. ET) march. A rally slated for the same time will proceed as planned, she said.

Police on Saturday resorted to pepper spray, tear gas and fire hoses to dissuade protesters trying to edge closer to the convention center, located in downtown Hong Kong.

Before Saturday, the fifth day of the conference, demonstrations had been largely peaceful, tainted only by a few minor scuffles, but South Korean protesters vowed to step up their protests on Saturday.

And step it up they did, attempting to break through a barrier marking the designated protest zone. When their attempts failed, between 1,000 and 1,500 protesters split into smaller groups of about 12 each, fleeing police over several square blocks before returning to the convention center and pushing forward.

The nearest the protesters got to the convention center was Saturday night, when they inched within 100 meters of the convention center entrance.

Police donned gas masks and propped up riot shields as they fired the hoses, tear gas and pepper spray -- an unusual tactic in normally peaceful Hong Kong.

Forty-one people were reported injured in Saturday's clashes, said Hong Kong Police Commissioner Dick Lee.

In an effort to continue the protests but stem the violence, a South Korean urged his fellow demonstrators, via megaphone, to be arrested with dignity and asked them to lie down and be taken away in a nonviolent fashion.

Police eventually quelled the violence, but the protesters refused to leave.

A main thoroughfare in the densely populated commercial and residential district was closed because of the standoffs and clashes with police.

Between 6,000 and 7,000 protesters showed up at the talks, but only a portion of them participated in Saturday's violence, and though 2,000 police have been deployed to the area, Hong Kong has drawn criticism for choosing a building that is so accessible and establishing a protest area too difficult to contain.

CNN Business Correspondent Eunice Yoon contributed to this report

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