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Protest-hit Americas summit pushes trade, democracy

Protest-hit Americas summit pushes trade, democracy

Leaders from 34 nations promised to push for free trade and deeper democracy at the close on Sunday of a Summit of the Americas marred by violent street protests that at times disrupted their work.

Three days of clashes between police and anti-globalization activists seeking to breach a well-fortified security fence did not stop the summit confirming plans to create a Free Trade Area of the Americas, stretching from Canada to Chile.

The world's largest trade zone, due to take effect by the end of 2005, would have a combined annual output of over $11 trillion, and the leaders gathered in Quebec City, including U.S. President George W. Bush, hope it will curb poverty.

"The benefits of free trade for all the countries of this hemisphere are strong," Bush told a final news conference. "And I intend to vigorously pursue a free trade agenda."

The demonstrators, following the line taken at protest-hit international meetings in Seattle, Prague and Washington, say the free trade area will benefit big business and hurt the poor. They claim the leaders have no legitimate right to negotiate such important matters behind closed doors.

Most protesters were peaceful but black-clad anarchists, many of them from U.S.-based groups calling themselves Black Blocs, attacked the steel perimeter fence with sticks, chains and bottles. They hauled it down in a couple of places before police drove them back with tear gas, water cannon and rubber bullets just blocks from summit sites.

"(The fence) was a reasonable security measure that limited clashes and had the summit go on," said Gaetan Labbe, Quebec City police chief, of the barrier that - erected to protect the leaders - became a symbol and focus of the conflict.

Police arrested about 400 people, including a U.S. photographer working for Time Magazine who said he had been a victim of mistaken identity. Over 60 people were injured, including 45 protesters, police said.

SMILES INSIDE

But inside the summit center the mood was optimistic and the presidents and prime ministers were smiling.

"I don't think it is a question of our legitimacy. We are very legitimate, all of us were elected," said Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien. The summit host said that while he had nothing against the many peaceful demonstrators who traveled to French-speaking Quebec City, he would not tolerate violence.

Argentina's President Fernando de la Rua said the countries of the Americas needed to do more to get their message across ahead of the next meeting, which Argentina will host in 2004.

"The next summit...will not require walls to keep out those who come to protest," he said. "But there will be space for those who have come to applaud when we work for the benefit and progress of all peoples."

The leaders, aware of the concerns outside about representation, also adopted a clause in their final communique obliging signatories to observe democratic norms. Nations which fail to do so could find themselves suspended from future summits and even banished from the FTAA.

"The declaration we have signed represents a clear dedication in favor of democracy and making it an essential precondition for participating in the process of the Summit of the Americas," said Chretien.

But there were clear signs that not all had gone smoothly. Venezuela dissented from several points in the final declaration, saying it might not be able to introduce the FTAA on time because it wanted to hold a referendum on the issue.

WORRIES ABOUT HAITI, COLOMBIA

The leaders also expressed concern about fragile democracy in Haiti and said the Organization of American States would send a fact-finding team to Port-au-Prince. They stated their support for Colombia's plans to fight powerful drugs lords and slash the production of coca plants.

"There is no question in my mind that we have challenges ahead of us and no question we can meet those challenges," Bush told the news conference.

He said the United States was committed to supporting Colombia in its war on drugs but that it was up to President Andres Pastrana to make peace with narcotics-financed rebels.

As the summit neared an end, squads of riot police, backed by water cannon trucks, guarded the security fence, which snaked for 4 miles (6 km) around central parts of the historic walled city. But there were no serious incidents.

Hundreds of demonstrators left in buses with gas masks hanging out of the windows. Many were crying and hugging each other as they said goodbye.

The demonstrators ranged from a violent fringe of up to 6,000 militants to middle-aged ex-hippies, trade unionists, environmentalists and other activists for social and economic causes, of whom about 25,000 marched peacefully on Saturday.

"We're participating in something that's bigger than just the FTAA, than the Summit of the Americas," said Toronto student Ned Dolan. "It's a radicalization of culture and a broader movement...in the long run it will lead to change."


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