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WORLD: WTO May Move Meeting Out of Qatar

Associated Press
October 15th, 2001

The World Trade Organization may move a November meeting out of the Persian Gulf country of Qatar because of security worries following the U.S. strikes on Afghanistan, trade envoys said Monday.

''I have been impressed by the security efforts the Qataris have taken,'' U.S. Trade Representative Robert B. Zoellick said. But ''there are issues in the region that are beyond anybody's control, and those are some of the issues that they and others will have to weigh as we decide what exactly to do.''

The WTO meeting is scheduled for Nov. 9-13 in the Qatari capital of Doha. Zoellick, who is visiting Malaysia, and trade representatives who met over the weekend in Singapore said they are weighing whether to move the site.

Demonstrations have broken out in several Arab countries since American forces began airstrikes on Oct. 7 to punish Afghanistan's ruling Taliban militia for harboring Osama bin Laden, the prime suspect in the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States.

Reaction to the airstrikes has been muted in Qatar, and the country has stopped issuing visas to visitors until Nov. 15 to help keep out troublemakers. But the trade organization is wary of even the possibility of unrest following riots at a 1999 WTO meeting in Seattle and several international summits since.

''It's no secret that Doha is located in the vicinity of what is today considered a war zone,'' said Pascal Lamy, commissioner for trade for the European Commission.

''I think everyone everywhere ought to be concerned about security because the world fundamentally changed on Sept. 11,'' WTO Director-General Mike Moore said.

On Monday, Qatar was still pushing to host the meeting. The small but wealthy U.S. ally has renovated a number of housing complexes and planned to open two new hotels to host some of the 4,500 people expected to attend the meeting.

The country also expanded its airport, laid new asphalt on major roads and planted flowers across the capital for the event.

Abdul Aziz al-Khulaifi, deputy head of the meeting's organizing committee, told the Qatari daily As-Sharq that there had been no formal request from the WTO to move the meeting.

However, organization officials have been talking with Singapore and other countries to find an alternative site, said George Yeo, Singapore's trade and industry minister.

He said Singapore might be able to host a smaller meeting on short notice.

''We have done some preliminary checks. Provided we are talking about only basic facilities, we could probably do something on a much scaled-down basis,'' he said.

Zoellick said that whatever site is chosen, the WTO meeting must go ahead to help re-establish confidence amid the global economic slowdown and the terror attacks.

He said terrorism would also be the main topic during a summit of the 21-member Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum this weekend in Shanghai. That meeting will be attended by President Bush and other world leaders.

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