Thousands of South Korean riot police fought pitched battles yesterday with anti-US protesters and villagers as the military started clearing a site for a new US army base, leaving 187 people injured.
Clashes began when 13,000 riot police arrived to help thousands of soldiers erect miles of barbed wire fence around a vast tract of paddy field to secure the site of the planned base at Pyongtaek, 70km south of Seoul.
The military mobilized 15 UH-60 helicopters to drop rolls of barbed wire as riot police used water cannons to drive the protesters into an elementary school, photographers on the scene said.
About 1,000 protesters led by Roman Catholic priests and anti-US activists resisted the police by igniting fires and wielding bamboo sticks and steel pipes.
Police said the 10-hour confrontation left 117 policemen and 70 protesters injured.
Police armed with batons and shields detained about 400 protesters who had pelted them with shards of broken bottles and flower vases from the school's rooftop.
One banner visible from the building read: "Stop expanding the US military base in Pyongtaek! No war on the Korean peninsula!"
The protesters called for the withdrawal of all US troops from South Korea.
Dozens of US military bases in and around the capital are to be relocated to Pyongtaek. Construction is to begin in October but some residents and farmers, backed by anti-US activists, had refused to vacate their houses on the site.
A 29km-long wire fence has been put up, Ministry of Defense spokesman Ahn Jung-hoon said.
"The area was designated as a military facility protection zone," he said.
Under a mutual defense treaty following the 1950-1953 Korean War, some 32,000 US troops are stationed in South Korea.
Seoul and Washington have agreed to relocate 35 US military bases across the country in a consolidation plan. Camp Humphreys in Pyongtaek will serve as the US military headquarters.
Some 80 percent of the residents in the area have agreed to sell their land to the defense ministry and the relocation project is due to finish in 2008.
"The government has come to a conclusion that this project should not drift further," Minister of Defense Yoon Kwang-ung said.