Protestors besiege bank meeting

Thousands of demonstrators bulldozed their way past Thai riot police Sunday, besieging a hotel where the Asian Development Bank was holding its annual meeting and demanding an end to policies they said punish the poor.

Meanwhile, the United States cautiously welcomed an agreement reached between 13 Asian nations to come to the rescue of each other's currencies to fend off economic crises like the upheaval that struck the region in 1997.

The United States and Japan also ruled out membership in the Manila-based bank for North Korea, rebuffing an appeal by South Korea's finance minister for help in bringing the reclusive North into the international financial system and possibly increasing stability on the peninsula.

Outside, 4,000 protesters inspired by demonstrations in Seattle and Washington, D.C., against multilateral economic institutions caught riot police by surprise and stormed over barricades to lay siege to the Westin Hotel.

The demonstrators converged at a narrow bridge over a river leading to the hotel and were initially stopped by hundreds of police. They then powered forward and mowed down crowd-control barriers, pushing the police back to the middle of the span. Women screamed and shoved for breathing space in the crush.

The police did not use their clubs and eventually allowed the crowd across. They gathered across the street from the hotel, with 2,000 police in ranks preventing them from going further. There were no further clashes.

At least five people were slightly injured, but no one was reported to be badly hurt. Five protesters were arrested and released.

"It hasn't interrupted any of the meetings going on inside, but we're very aware of them," said N. Cinammon Dornsife, executive director for the U.S. at the ADB. "We're definitely keeping an eye on it."

Kazuo Sumi, a Japanese activist, said one Thai demonstrator had threatened to commit suicide Monday, when the conference ends, if the ADB did not meet their demands.

"We did not plan for this violence, but we knew we had to reach our goal, in front of the Westin Hotel," said Dawan Bhanhasbee, 35.

Like many of the protesters, Dawan lives in the Klong Dan area outside Bangkok, the capital, where the Manila-based development bank is funding a mammoth wastewater treatment plant. Nearby villagers say the project will ruin their homes.

The ADB claims that millions will be served by the plant, which will treat waste from heavy industries, and villagers will benefit from cleaner waters they fish and use for farming.

Along with 38 non-governmental groups, they demand that the bank stop funding the project and cease making loans that increase indebtedness of poor nations and hurt farmers.

Myoung-ho Shin, an ADB vice president, gave them a letter that said the ADB would study their demands over the next three weeks and wanted to meet their leaders in June. Protest leaders said that was a stall tactic and wanted a better answer by Monday.

On Saturday, finance ministers from the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations, Japan, China and South Korea agreed to set up arrangements that would protect each other's currencies to fend off future economic crises.

Details remain to be filled in, but the plan stops well short of the proposal by Japan in 1997 to create an Asian monetary fund, which was shot down by Washington, fearing it would rival the International Monetary Fund.

The more modest proposal, seen by Asian officials as part of a long process to give the region more cohesion and international clout, received cautious backing Sunday from Edwin M. Truman, the Treasury Department's assistant secretary for international affairs.

"We have long supported regional cooperation, in this region and others," Truman told a news conference. "We think this is a fine idea. But the nature of financial arrangements depends on the details."

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