South Korean prosecutors sought arrest warrants for dozens of anti-US activists yesterday following violent protests against plans to relocate US military bases, as thousands of riot police braced for a potential fresh clash, officials said.
More than 520 demonstrators, mostly student and labor activists, have been detained in two days of bloody clashes with police at a new US military base site in Pyeongtaek, about 65km south of Seoul. Over 200 protesters and police were injured, some of them seriously.
The Supreme Prosecutors' Office said it has requested court warrants to formally arrest 37 hardcore protesters, most of them affiliated with a militant leftist student organization and labor groups.
For months, villagers and anti-US activists have impeded work to expand US base Camp Humphreys in Pyeongtaek following a 2004 agreement between Seoul and Washington to move the US military command there from its current headquarters in central Seoul.
On Thursday, authorities sent more than 10,000 riot police to the site, evicting protesters and destroying an abandoned school used as a base for the protesters. Army engineers also set up wire fences around the site to keep outsiders away.
But activists returned on Friday to stage more protests. TV footage showed stick-brandishing demonstrators cutting wire fences and beating unarmed troops guarding the site.
News reports said activists planned to stage a third day of protests later yesterday.
Pyeongtaek Police Station said more than 8,000 riot police were deployed to the area. 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, but many have objected. About 680 households originally refused to move out, but now only about 70 households continue to protest the plans, the Defense Ministry says.
Human rights group Amnesty International criticized the police's efforts to evict the protesters.
"The sheer numbers of injured demand an independent investigation into the policing of these forced evictions and demonstrations," the group said in an e-mailed statement. "The authorities must release all those who have been arrested simply for peaceful protesting."
About 29,500 US troops are stationed in South Korea to help defend the country from communist North Korea, but their numbers are set to go down as part of Pentagon plans to realign US forces worldwide. The two Koreas technically remain in a state of conflict because the 1950-53 Korean War ended in a truce, not a peace treaty.