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Taiwan protesters to end sit-in over China trade pact

TAIPEI (Reuters) - Hundreds of protesters occupying Taiwan’s legislature for nearly three weeks to oppose a trade pact with China have agreed to end their sit-in, their leader said on Monday.

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Their decision came after the speaker of Taiwan’s parliament promised that the island’s lawmakers would approve a “review mechanism” of China trade agreements before the current pact is passed, a key demand of the protesters.

China and Taiwan have been ruled separately since Nationalist forces, defeated by the Communists, fled to the island at the end of the Chinese civil war in 1949. China considers Taiwan a renegade province and has never ruled out the use of force to bring it under its control.

But in recent years, the two sides have built up extensive economic ties, and in February they held their first direct government-to-government talks.

The protesters fear the trade pact gives the mainland too much influence.

Protest leader Chen Wei-ting told reporters the students would leave the legislature at 6 p.m. on Thursday, in order to accommodate legislative meetings on Friday.

“It’s time for us to return this movement to broader Taiwan society, where we will continue the struggle,” Chen said before an emotional crowd of fellow protesters.

The largely student-led protest, which briefly turned violent after hundreds stormed the headquarters of the island’s executive branch two weeks ago, is Taiwan’s largest anti-China movement in years.

The trade services pact, which would open 64 of Taiwan’s service sectors to China and 80 of China’s sectors to Taiwan, had been touted by the government as a necessary step for Taiwan’s economy as it attempts to forge trade deals with more countries.

Taiwan’s president, Ma Ying-jeou, says it will create 12,000 jobs.

But the opposition derides the pact as a threat to the island’s industry and fears it could open the door to Chinese influence on Taiwan politics.

Ma said in a statement he supported the students’ decision to leave the legislature and allow parliament to resume its normal function.

The fracas began in late March after the trade services pact passed a legislative hurdle via what protesters claim were undemocratic means.

The protesters stormed the parliament building and repulsed police efforts to evict them.

Reporting by Michael Gold