Taiwan president agrees to meet trade pact protesters

TAIPEI (AFP) - Taiwan's president on Tuesday offered to talk with protest leaders in a concession to student demonstrators who have occupied parliament for the past week to stop the government from ratifying a contentious trade agreement with China.

The invite was apparently aimed at preventing any further escalation after more than 100 people were injured Monday when police used water cannon to disperse hundreds of protesters who had also stormed the nearby government headquarters.

"As the continued paralysing of parliament has impacted the operation of parliament and government, President Ma Ying-jeou is willing to invite student leaders to the presidential office to discuss the service trade agreement... so as to help parliament resume operation," Ma's spokeswoman Li Jia-fei said in a statement.

It was not immediately clear if the student protesters, who had demanded a meeting with Ma, would accept the invite.

Premier Jiang Yi-huah on Saturday met with the demonstrators outside parliament, but they did not reach any agreement.

The trade agreement, signed in July, 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.

Ma has warned that failure to ratify the pact would be a grave setback to trade-reliant Taiwan's efforts to seek more free trade agreements and avoid isolation as regional economic blocs emerge.

The protesters have demanded Ma "return" the trade pact to China, rejecting the government's bid to push ahead with plans to ratify it.

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

Angry student protesters occupied parliament on Tuesday last week and had initially demanded that the government honour a pledge to review the pact clause by clause.

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.