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America accused of sabotage in Seattle

RECRIMINATIONS OVER the collapse of world trade talks flew yesterday after some European officials suggested the US deliberately sabotaged the summit when it became clear other nations would not acquiesce to its demands.

Some US officials have also hinted at the same ugly situation after the debacle in Seattle, where the four-day meeting of the World Trade Organisation ended without agreement.

The Americans apparently preferred to let the summit fail rather than try to explain their failure to US unions and other interest groups, with an election less than a year away.

American newspapers have begun to report the contrary charge - that the meeting failed because the European Union would not compromise on agriculture. This is belied by the fact that a deal on the table had resolved most of the difficulties by early Friday evening. America had mishandled the talks so there was insufficient time for many other key issues, but at 6pm European officials said they were willing to carry on into the next morning if it meant a successful end.

But by 8pm President Bill Clinton, Charlene Barshefsky, the US Trade Representative, and White House officials Gene Sperling and John Podesta, decided "the patient could not be resuscitated," the The New York Times reported. The US said this was because other governments would not compromise. But the agreement on the table was profoundly unsatisfactory to America.

A deal on labour standards - a critical issue and one that will affect the election - was already a shell, outside the main WTO text, carrying no policy implications and with the heavy hint of extra cash for developing countries. Some developing nations wanted to push it even further into the margins.

US officials were said to fear this would damage Vice-President Al Gore's chances of re-election. John Sweeney, head of the AFL-CIO, America's umbrella trade body, said after the meeting that no deal was better than the agreement on the table.

Mr Clinton intervened, calling heads of state around the world, pushing for American demands. He asked Japan to back away from its demands that the US amend its controversial anti-dumping policy, which penalises exporters to America, for instance.

Again, the deal on the table was a long way from America's agenda, as it was on genetically modified food. These agreements were in part struck to gain a deal on agriculture, making little sense of the claim that no progress could be made.

European officials had been puzzled for most of the day that America was failing to tackle many of the outstanding issues, and some speculated that the US did not want agreement.

After the meeting, some said that they believed Ms Barshefsky had let the deal collapse for political reasons. Others demurred, saying it was incompetence, and not conspiracy.