Thousands rally against U.S. base relocation plan


SEOUL, South Korea (AP) – Thousands rallied on a downtown Seoul boulevard on Saturday to protest a plan to relocate American military bases, the largest anti-U.S. demonstration in the South Korean capital this year.

According to police estimates, about 6,000 people came out to protest moving the Seoul-based American military headquarters and some other bases to Pyeongtaek, about 40 miles south of the capital.

The relocation has been a main target of anti-U.S. activists here. They claim the project is part of a U.S. scheme to position its troops in a place where they can be quickly deployed to possible conflicts outside the Korean Peninsula.

Pyeongtaek, the new base site, is near the country’s west coast facing China across the Yellow Sea.

“As long as U.S. troops are stationed on this land, we won’t be liberated from fears of war,” said civic activist Kim Kyu-chul during an earlier, smaller rally in front of the U.S. Embassy. “We can never give up Pyeongtaek as a (U.S.) war base.”

Several villages on the outskirts of Pyeongtaek, a city of 360,000 people, must be razed for the base construction. The government has offered residents financial compensation to move out of their homes, but many have strongly objected to the plans.

In the largest of several demonstrations around Seoul, protesters waving candles, chanting slogans and singing songs staged a sit-in along a 10-lane boulevard at a major intersection about a block away from the U.S. Embassy.

“Stop the expansion of a war base!” they shouted as dozens of large flags representing unions, student and civic groups fluttered in the windy night air.

About 8,500 riot police wearing helmets and plastic shields were deployed around the area. Police formed barricades around the protest site with buses parked bumper-to-bumper to prevent the demonstration from spreading down narrow side streets.

Blaring music and slogans from loudspeakers reverberated through the city center, as a giant electronic screen mounted on a truck flashed slogans like, “Withdraw U.S. Troops!” and “Down with the defense minister!”

The turnout was the largest among anti-U.S. demonstrations held in Seoul this year, police said. After two hours, demonstrators dispersed voluntarily and no violence was reported.

The relocation has drawn wide media attention since bloody clashes last week when the government sent thousands of riot police to evict villagers and anti-American activists occupying the new base site for months. Hundreds of arrests and injuries were reported.

About 29,500 U.S. troops are stationed in South Korea in a legacy of the 1950-53 Korean War, but that number is set to decline to 25,000 by 2008 as part of the Pentagon’s worldwide realignment of its forces.

The Korean War ended in a cease-fire, not a peace treaty, leaving the two Koreas technically at war.

About 500 student activists staged a separate, rowdy protest in Seoul earlier Saturday. Some hurled eggs at the Defense Ministry building.

Later, at the candlelight vigil, silence descended as video footage of police punching, kicking and dragging anti-U.S. protesters at last week’s demonstration was shown on the giant screen.

The protesters planned to spend the night at a Seoul university campus and travel to Pyeongtaek on Sunday to continue their demonstrations.

More than 10,000 riot police were dispatched to the new base site to thwart the planned rally.