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HONG KONG (Reuters) - Hong Kong police fired volleys of tear gas on Saturday to repel hundreds of protesters trying to force their way into a building where world trade ministers were meeting.
"The protesters got very close to the building, they were standing just across the street," a Reuters reporter said.
Fifty-four people were injured in the fighting, including at least five police officers, the government said. Most of the injured were South Korean farmers, who say free trade is ruining them.
Nine hundred protesters were detained, Police Commissioner Dick Lee told a late-night news conference. Asked if they would be arrested, he said "they will be handled according to the law."
"At the moment, the majority of areas in Wanchai are under control," Lee said. "Police will be taking all necessary action to restore order. We are fully confident the venue (trade meeting) can proceed as normal."
Some 1,000 protesters were involved in the unrest, Lee said.
Police said they had not yet decided whether another large demonstration scheduled for Sunday would be allowed to proceed.
It was the worst street violence in Hong Kong since angry protests following the Chinese army's bloody crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Tiananmen Square in Beijing in 1989.
But the fighting was less intense than that which marred the last two big World Trade Organisation conferences in Cancun and Seattle. A South Korean farmer stabbed himself to death in the Mexican town of Cancun during a WTO meeting in 2003.
At one point on Saturday, protesters seized metal barricades and used them as battering rams against the police, but police lines held and reinforcements pushed the protesters back.
Police fired numerous volleys of tear gas in the area near the building, Reuters correspondents said, and television showed officers bringing up what appeared to be armoured vehicles.
Inside the convention centre, trade ministers continued their quest to find an elusive world trade deal, which critics say will hurt the world's poor. Journalists, delegates and policemen crowded round TV monitors watching the brawls outside.
European and Japanese delegates were taken to the harbourfront centre by boat for late-night meetings as fighting raged.
Hong Kong, a former British colony, was returned to China in 1997. Lee said police had not asked the local Chinese army garrison for help and China's state media were silent on the protests.
"DOWN, DOWN WTO"
Protesters began storming heavily fortified police lines in late afternoon, breaking through ranks of police who used pepper spray, batons and fire hoses to try to beat them back.
Some demonstrators put plastic wrap around their eyes while others donned goggles and surgical masks to protect themselves from the irritating spray.
Police blocked off large parts of the crowded Wanchai entertainment and office district and closed a nearby subway station to prevent protesters from moving around the area.
By 9:30 pm (1330 GMT), about 500 protesters were staging a sit-in on a street near the convention centre, demanding permission to deliver their anti-globalisation message to trade ministers.
"We love Hong Kong," some chanted as wary police encircled the group. "Down, down WTO."
Thousands of protesters from many anti-globalisation groups had taken to the streets in the early afternoon, handing pink and yellow roses to police officers manning barricades and releasing yellow balloons printed with "No, no WTO".
As their numbers swelled, they began to push against police and probe their defences.
An estimated 10,000 anti-globalisation protesters converged on Hong Kong for the trade meeting, including about 2,000 South Korean farmers, workers and unionists, who have a reputation as the most militant anti-globalisation group in Asia.
"People are very angry ... farmers are fighting for their lives," said radical French farmer and anti-globalisation campaigner Jose Bove, who was on the fringes of the fray.
(Additional reporting by Dominic Lau, John Chalmers, Tan Ee Lyn, Wendy Lim, Nao Nakanishi, Susan Fenton and Chris Buckley)
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