Hundreds injured in South Korea beef protests
Protesters fought riot police early Sunday at a rally opposing the resumption of American beef imports to South Korea, hours after the chief U.S. diplomat vouched for the health of U.S. cattle, the AP reported.
An estimated 15,000 people - some wielding steel pipes and hurling stones at police - demonstrated in Seoul on Saturday night, demanding the government rescind its decision to lift a ban on U.S. beef imports.
The rally turned violent after some protesters used ropes to try to drag away police buses being used as barricades to block the way to the presidential Blue House.
Riot police immediately fired water cannons and sprayed fire extinguishers to repel the protesters, and also used clubs and shields against the crowd.
Several hundred protesters were hurt during the rally that continued into Sunday morning, according to a coalition of civic groups that has organized weeks of demonstrations.
Police said the clash left more than 100 riot police injured. About 50 protesters were arrested on charges of assaulting police and illegally occupying streets.
Activists have staged daily rallies on the streets of the capital to voice fears about the possible health risks of U.S. beef, such as mad cow disease. As officials began inspecting U.S. beef on Friday, hundreds of labor activists blocked customs storage facilities.
Justice Minister Kim Kyung-han said in statement televised nationally Sunday that that the government will crack down against future violent protests. Officials could take measures such as the use of liquid tear gas, which has been banned in South Korea since 1999.
He said authorities will also chase, arrest and punish those who have spearheaded violent demonstrations, which he said have developed into a broader opposition to major government policy agendas.
Jang Dae-hyun, a spokesman for the protest group, said police should cease the harsh methods used against demonstrators to prevent further violence. "We've been supporting peaceful rallies, but the police crackdown is too harsh," Jang said.
The beef issue topped the agenda when Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met South Korean officials during her visit to Seoul as part of an Asian tour. She flew to China on Sunday.
"I want to assure everyone that American beef is safe," Rice told a news conference with South Korea's foreign minister, Yu Myung-hwan. "We will continue to work with you to have consumer confidence in that matter."
About 15 sign-carrying protesters gathered outside the South Korean Foreign Ministry, where Rice met with Yu.
"Rice, go home," they chanted. Placards said, "Stop Rice and Mad Cow," and "We Don't Need U.S. Troops. We Don't Need Mad Cows."
U.S. beef has been banned since late 2003, when the first case of mad cow disease in the U.S. was discovered. In the wake of public outrage over plans to resume shipments of American beef, the South Korean Cabinet offered to resign and the president reshuffled top advisers.