HONG KONG - Police fired tear gas Saturday at hundreds of protesters who charged the convention center where delegates were wrapping up global trade talks. Security forces locked the doors and took up positions throughout the building.
Hong Kong's security chief vowed robust police action to control the protests, the most violent during the weeklong meeting of the World Trade Organization. The demonstrators oppose the WTO's efforts to open up global markets.
Security forces spent much of the afternoon fighting running street battles with the protesters, including South Korean farmers, Southeast Asian groups and activists from Europe and America.
The protesters hit police with bamboo sticks and used a metal barrier to ram a line of officers armed with riot shields. The police fought back with clubs, pepper spray and water cannons that shot water mixed with a chemical that burned the skin and eyes.
The six-day meeting concludes Sunday, and delegates were seeking to agree on a final statement showing at least modest progress toward lowering trade barriers in agriculture, manufacturing and services.
A draft agreement circulating Saturday indicated negotiators failed to tackle the toughest issues. While it showed some progress in a few areas, it was also riddled with loopholes and gaps that might be hard to close with little time left.
One of the most contentious issues was setting a deadline for ending government payments to domestic producers to promote exports, a key demand of poorer nations. The draft suggested that such export subsidies be eliminated by 2010 - a date that will likely meet opposition from the European Union.
A dispute over how much wealthy nations should cut their tariffs and farm subsidies has been a major obstacle during the meeting, with many delegates pinning the blame on the European Union's refusal to further open up its farming market to imports. The EU, however, says it has made ambitious offers to cut its trade barriers and wants developing nations to agree to lowering their tariffs on manufactured goods and services.
EU trade chief Peter Mandelson said the draft "lacks balance" but he will continue to negotiate, including on the sensitive topic of export subsidies.
In a victory for West African cotton growers, the draft calls for rich nations to end export subsidies for cotton in 2006. This represents a U.S. concession to demands by African and other developing countries that say government support for farmers in rich countries is driving many poor farmers out of work.
The text also showed progress on the issue of granting duty-free and quota-free access for goods from the world's poorest countries, suggesting that all developed nations would agree to the proposal.
U.S. Trade Representative Rob Portman said he did not expect any big breakthroughs but said he was hopeful for some modest progress, including an agreement on an end date for export subsidies.
"The U.S. had hoped for more in Hong Kong, but we came here with relatively low expectations because of the inability to resolve the agriculture issues," he said. "I'm still relatively hopeful."
The goal of the Hong Kong meeting was to produce a detailed outline for a binding global free trade agreement by the end of 2006. But the six-day meeting appeared doomed even before it began due to the impasse over agricultural trade. From the start, delegates began floating the idea of a follow-up ministerial meeting in March or April, assuming there was little chance for a breakthrough.
A failure in Hong Kong could seriously undermine the WTO's credibility. Previous trade-liberalization talks in Cancun, Mexico, in 2003 and Seattle in 1999 collapsed in disarray. And the current Doha round of talks, started in 2001 in Qatar's capital, is already two years behind schedule.