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Friday, November 18, 2005 - Page updated at 11:02 AM

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Bird flu, free trade top Pacific talks

BUSAN, South Korea — The leaders of 21 Pacific Rim economies gathered today to develop joint action to fight bird flu and shore up flagging talks on a global free-trade pact, but regional tensions hung over their talks.

Security was tight before the opening of the two-day summit in the port city of Busan, where activists promised protests by 100,000 people opposed variously to U.S. forces in South Korea, globalization, North Korea and trade liberalization.

Although dismissed by some as toothless, the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum is determined to make its voice heard on global concerns including corruption, the threat of terrorism and dealing with natural disasters.

Australian Prime Minister John Howard said he planned to unveil a "significant initiative" to halt the spread of bird flu, which experts say could kill millions if it became a pandemic.

But topping the APEC agenda was how to advance talks on the Doha trade round, which have stalled over the refusal of the European Union (EU) to make further cuts in import tariffs on farm goods without offers from developing countries of more market access.

"It's not being melodramatic to say that unless there is a very significant shift in the attitude of some countries we are not going to have a successful Doha trade round," Howard told a parallel meeting of APEC business leaders.

"We are not going to get anywhere unless there is a significant matching of what the Americans have put on the table by the Europeans," he said later.

The World Trade Organization had hoped for an outline agreement to be reached in Hong Kong next month, paving the way for a deal next year, but that meeting now looks set to be a staging post rather than a milestone because of the impasse.

APEC ministers meeting this week urged their leaders to talk tough ahead of Hong Kong. But, with some APEC countries facing domestic resistance to opening long-protected markets, they stopped short of singling out the EU as the spoiler.

South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun told the conference of business leaders that the fruits of globalization must be shared to avoid destabilizing social disparities.

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"With the advancement of liberalization ... an adverse effect of social economic disparities is also on the rise," he said.

Indeed, anger over plans to open up South Korea's rice market was set to be the focus of huge rallies in Busan, whose cordoned-off streets were bristling with riot police today.

Some 30,000 police officers were on duty in the city of 3.7 million people, Secret Service agents were on alert at President Bush's hotel and a naval cordon guarded the domed sea-front retreat where leaders will meet Saturday.

The leaders were to have bilateral meetings on the sidelines in Busan on Friday. The meetings would include Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and Roh.

Bush and Roh agreed at a pre-summit meeting Thursday that talks should be held to replace the 1950-53 Korean War truce with a peace treaty and said a nuclear North Korea was unacceptable.

Glossing over differences, Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin greeted each other warmly Friday in talks expected to emphasize cooperation in the war on terror and the campaign to stop North Korea's nuclear ambitions.

The two leaders apparently were still at odds over how to address Iran's nuclear program. There also were long-running differences over the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and U.S. concern that Russia is retreating from democracy. Exchanging pleasantries, they offered no public remarks on the issues they face.

Friday's meeting was the fifth between Bush and Putin this year, following talks in Moscow; Washington; Bratislava, Slovakia; and Gleneagles, Scotland. Despite their disputes, they're on a first-name basis and emphasize their friendship, which was strengthened when Putin stepped forward and supported Bush after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

The White House said the key topics would be Iran, North Korea, terrorism, trade, Moscow's goal of joining the World Trade Organization by the end of the year and developments in Russia.

Bush met with Southeast Asia leaders to underscore U.S. interest in the region, one of the battlegrounds in the fight against terrorists. Bush was interested in asking the leaders to exert their influence on the military junta in Myanmar.

Putin has refused to support Bush in the president's eagerness to go to the U.N. Security Council with suspicions Iran is trying to build a nuclear arsenal. Over U.S. objections, Russia is building a nuclear reactor for a power plant in Iran, an $800 million project the United States fears could be used to help develop nuclear arms.

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