Taiwan leader defends China pact as protesters occupy parliament

TAIPEI - Taiwan's president on Sunday refused to scrap a contentious trade pact with China, denouncing the "illegal" occupation of parliament by protesters who are opposed to its ratification.

Around 200 protesters, mostly young students, broke through security barriers and took over parliament's main chamber on Tuesday night and have remained there ever since -- the first such occupation of the building in the island's history.

"The student group have been occupying the parliament's main chamber in a manner violating the law, paralysing the legislature's operation for five days," President Ma Ying-jeou said at a press conference televised live.

"I must say that (the pact) is completely for the sake of Taiwan's economic future."

The agreement is designed to open up further trade in services between China and Taiwan, which split 65 years ago after a civil war.

But the protesters say the deal will damage Taiwan's economy and leave it vulnerable to political pressure from China, allegations rejected by Ma's ruling Kuomintang party, which warns that failure to ratify the agreement would be a grave setback in Taiwan's efforts to seek more free trade agreements.

Ma, who initiated Taipei's much-touted detente with Beijing, refused to back down Sunday, terming the occupation of parliament as "illegal".

"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," he said.

"As the president of the Republic of China (Taiwan's official title), I have to insist on the rule of law while safeguarding democracy. This is the fundamental and unswerving position of the government."

Hundreds of police attempted to end the occupation hours after it began, but failed to push their way in with the protesters barricading the doorways with piles of armchairs.

Premier Jiang Yi-huah walked to the parliament building Saturday to hold the first direct dialogue between the government and protesters but failed to reach a breakthrough.

Jiang rejected demands to withdraw the agreement but said he would support calls for its thorough review by parliament as some protesters outside the buildings shouted "send back the pact".

The pact, signed in July, passed its first parliamentary hurdle on Monday after it was approved by a committee, but the opposition insisted the approval was illegal.

The deal is a follow-up agreement to a sweeping Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement signed in 2010 to reduce trade barriers between China and Taiwan.

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.