TAIPEI: Taiwan riot police unleashed water cannon Monday to dislodge hundreds of demonstrators who had stormed government headquarters in violent scenes that dramatically escalated a days-old protest against a trade pact with China.
After nearly a week-long occupation of Taiwan’s parliament, the protesters late Sunday also infiltrated the Executive Yuan where the cabinet is located, pulling down barbed-wire barricades outside and using ladders to break into offices on the second floor.
The assault came after President Ma Ying-jeou refused to back down on the trade pact, which he argues is vital for Taiwan’s economic future, rejecting opposition claims that he is effectively handing the island over to Chinese control after six decades of political separation.
About 1,000 officers were deployed overnight to forcibly remove the protesters from the Executive Yuan. Premier Jiang Yi-huah, whose office is located in the building, said at least 110 people were injured, including 52 police officers, while police arrested 61 people.
“Suddenly water was spraying at us and it was very powerful. My glasses flew off and I was very dizzy,” protester Frank Hsieh, a former premier from the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), told reporters.
One injured male protester lay on the ground receiving medical care, while another was led away with blood streaming down his face, AFP journalists saw.
After taking over the building, many protesters had lain on the ground with their arms linked to defy efforts to shift them.
Police used riot shields to push the crowds back while some of the demonstrators tried to grab their batons and pelted them with plastic bottles. Two water cannon trucks were then deployed early Monday, eventually subduing the crowd and clearing the building.
“The government denounces violence and dispersed the crowd according to the law. We will not tolerate actions designed to paralyse the government,” the presidential office said in a statement.
But the DPP, which historically has favoured formal independence for Taiwan, called on Ma to respond to the protesters’ demands and scrap the pact.
“Forcible dispersals will only cause more students and police to get hurt and are likely to trigger more outrage and protests,” the party said in a statement.
Ma has overseen a marked thaw in relations with Beijing since he came to power in 2008 pledging to strengthen trade and tourism links.
But China still considers Taiwan as part of its territory awaiting reunification — by force if necessary — while Taipei still styles itself the legitimate “Republic of China”.
The president warns that trade-reliant Taiwan could be marginalised without the China agreement — which is designed to further open up trade in services — and similar pacts with other countries, as regional economic blocs emerge.
“I must say that (the pact) is completely for the sake of Taiwan’s economic future,” Ma told a news conference on Sunday, denouncing the parliamentary sit-in before the protests spread to the Executive Yuan.
“Let us calm down and think carefully. Is this the democracy we want? Do we have to do in this way, risking the rule of law?”
Some 200 protesters — mainly college students — stormed the parliament last Tuesday and took over its main chamber to stop Ma’s ruling Kuomintang (KMT) party from ratifying the agreement with China.
Hundreds of police attempted to end the occupation hours after it began, but failed to push their way through piles of armchairs barricading the doorways.
After the unruly scenes at the Executive Yuan, hundreds of police remained deployed outside the parliament complex a short walk away on Monday. But they showed no sign of intervening to retake control of the chamber inside, where the protesters remain holed up.
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