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Li Peng finds friendly faces in Bucharest

FOR THE first time after nearly two weeks in Europe, Li Peng, the Chinese Prime Minister, began to feel at home yesterday after arriving in Bucharest for talks with President Ion Iliescu and the Romanian government.

As on his earlier stops in Austria and Germany, Mr Li's main purpose was to boost trade relations. But unlike his first ports of call, Mr Li did not expect to face awkward questions about human rights in China. Still less, as was the case with Germany, did he risk facing noisy protesters condemning him as the 'butcher of Tiananmen'.

Mr Li and Mr Iliescu go back a long way. In the 1950s, they studied water engineering together in Moscow: both rose to great heights within their Communist parties.

Neither is fond of opposition. Mr Li is believed to have made the decision to send in tanks to crush pro-democracy reformers in Peking's Tiananmen Square in 1989. Mr Iliescu called on mobs of miners to break up anti-government demonstrations in Bucharest after he succeeded Romania's deposed former dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu, at the end of the same year.

In a statement from the Rompres news agency, Mr Li spoke of a 'profound friendship between China and Romania'. Cristian Ionescu, the Romanian Trade Minister, said Bucharest hoped to gain political mileage from the trip. 'China is a great power,' he said. 'And the fact that Romania is the only Eastern European country to be visited by Mr Li is of very great political importance.'

Economic ties between China and Romania are strong, with bilateral trade last year amounting to about dollars 500m ( pounds 320m). Both countries, however, have stronger economic ties with Germany. During his five-day visit to Bonn, Berlin, Weimar and Munich last week, the Chinese Prime Minister signed contracts worth DM6bn ( pounds 3.82bn) with German firms. Mr Li's stay, however, was marked by his extreme reluctance to hear criticism from his hosts or public protesters.