January 20, 2009 / 8:02 AM / 11 years ago

Korea's Lee under pressure as fire kills protesters

SEOUL (Reuters) - South Korea Tuesday ordered an inquiry into deaths in a fire after clashes between police and protesters which threaten to put the unpopular government back on the defensive just as it tries to focus on rescuing the economy.

Policemen and firefighters hang a curtain to prevent photographers from taking pictures of the bodies of victims of a fire as they remove the bodies from the scene of the fire at a building in Seoul January 20, 2009. Five South Koreans died on Tuesday in the blaze at the five-storey building during a standoff between police and residents protesting against demolition and demanding better compensation. Four of the dead were believed to be among more than 40 tenants a Reuters witness earlier said were trapped inside the building, from which several protesters had been throwing Molotov cocktails before fire started in the early hours of the day. REUTERS/Lee Jae-Won

Six people, including a police commando, died in the blaze at a five-storey building in central Seoul where authorities had moved in at dawn to break up a protest by more than 40 protesters, some throwing Molotov cocktails.

Five of the dead were believed to be among more than 40 protesters a Reuters witness earlier said were trapped inside the building.

The incident came two days after President Lee Myung-bak replaced his police chief, heavily criticized for his handling of protests that had erupted during the conservative leader’s almost one year in office.

“Whatever the reasons were, I want to express deep regret as Prime Minister,” Han Seung-soo said in a nationally televised address hours after the bodies were pulled from the charred building in the Yongsan district in the capital, which is also home to a major U.S. military base.

The protesters had occupied the building since Monday to demand more compensation to quit the property, scheduled for demolition as part of a major development in the area.

District police chief Baek Dong-san said one police commando was among those found dead on the roof of the building. More than 20 protesters and police officers were injured.

“Policemen were firing water cannon onto the roof of the building where protesters were throwing down Molotov cocktails to resist a possible raid,” the Reuters witness said.

Another witness said: “The police were going at them (the protesters) as if they were out to kill them.”

Baek said police had no choice but to move in because the protesters continued hurling Molotov cocktails, bricks and golf balls and spraying acid at officers and passers-by.

President Lee has struggled to put behind him months-long street protests last year against his decision to open the country to U.S. beef imports, as he seeks to move promised economic and financial reforms through a politically deadlocked parliament.

Lee, whose approval rating is just above 20 percent, reshuffled his top economic officials Monday, including ditching his widely criticized finance minister, to speed up measures to stop Asia’s fourth largest economy sliding into its deepest recession in 11 years.

Additional reporting by Yoo Choonsik; Writing by Jack Kim; Editing by Jonathan Thatcher and Jerry Norton

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