South Korean protesters fought with police yesterday amid a deepening political crisis over U.S. beef imports, hours after their president appealed to Washington to help ease growing public anger.
A pledge from U.S. President George W. Bush on Saturday to address South Korean fears of mad cow disease from American beef appeared to do little to calm protesters' ire at President Lee Myung-bak.
The clashes erupted early yesterday after a crowd estimated by police at about 40,000 rallied in central Seoul against an April agreement to resume U.S. beef imports, which they say failed to protect against beef potentially tainted with mad cow disease.
Demonstrators attacked police riot-control buses lined up to barricade downtown streets, using ladders to smash the vehicles' windows and trying to overturn them.
Clashes ensued, with protesters hitting police with sticks and officers striking back with riot shields. Police and protesters fought each other on top of at least one of the buses.
Protest organizers said at least 20 demonstrators were hurt. Seoul National University Hospital said it treated six injured people and all were released. Some police also were hurt, and 11 people were taken in for questioning.
The heads of South Korea's Justice and Public Administration and Security ministries planned to issue a joint statement yesterday evening, said Justice Ministry spokesman Hong Man-pyo.
Lee's fledgling government has been battered for weeks by daily protests over the April 18 agreement to resume U.S. beef imports - banned for most of the past four-and-a-half years over fears of mad cow disease.
The latest protest followed a familiar pattern - the main candlelight rally was largely peaceful and attended by families with small children. But it turned violent as crowds thinned and remaining demonstrators confronted police. Violence lasted until after sunrise.
The largest crowd yet - which police estimated at 65,000 - turned out Friday night.
Protesters claim that in pursuing the beef import deal Lee ignored their concerns about food safety and gave in to U.S. demands to help ensure passage in Congress of a bilateral free trade deal struck last year.
Both Seoul and Washington say that American beef is safe, citing the Paris-based World Organization for Animal Health. Protesters demand the agreement be scrapped or renegotiated to prohibit imports of beef from cattle 30 months of age or older.
Late Saturday, Lee's office said that Bush had pledged to come up with measures to ensure that beef from older cattle - considered at greater risk of mad cow disease - is not exported to South Korea.
Bush made the remark during a phone call with Lee, the presidential Blue House said.
"President Bush said he sufficiently understands South Koreans' concerns and worries," a statement said. "In this regard, (Bush) pledged to prepare specific measures to make sure that beef from cattle aged 30 months or older is not exported to South Korea."
The statement did not say what those measures would be.
The White House did not respond to requests for comment on South Korea's statement.
White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said earlier Bush assured Lee that the U.S. government "is cooperating closely with the South Korean government and ready to support American cattle exporters as they reach a mutually acceptable solution with Korean importers on the beef trade."
Except for a brief period last year, U.S. beef has been shut out of South Korea since the first case of mad cow disease in the U.S. was discovered in late 2003.
Scientists believe the disease spreads when farmers feed cattle recycled meat and bones from infected animals. The U.S. banned recycled feeds in 1997.