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S. Koreans Protest Acquittal of US Soldiers

Thousands of South Koreans demonstrated in Seoul Saturday to protest the acquittal of two U.S. soldiers whose vehicle crushed and killed two schoolgirls last June. The protesters were demanding a change to the bilateral agreement governing the legal status of U.S. soldiers stationed in South Korea. The rising wave of anti-U.S. sentiment led to the cancellation of a congressional trip to South Korea.

The protesters, including students, office workers and parents with children, gathered outside the U.S. embassy in the center of Seoul, chanting and singing songs. This was the latest in a series of demonstrations, following the acquittal last month by U.S. courts of the two American soldiers, whose 50 ton armored vehicle killed South Korean school girls.

The demonstrators are calling for a change in the bilateral military agreement, under which the U.S. army has jurisdiction over U.S. troops accused of committing crimes while on duty in South Korea.

One of the demonstrators called on President Bush to apologize directly for the deaths. She said she wanted the two American soldiers to be handed over for trial in South Korean courts, and she called for a withdrawal of U.S. troops from South Korea.

Another protester said no one has taken responsibility for the deaths of the two schoolgirls. He said, instead the two U.S. soldiers left the day after the trial. He said that if the situation had been reversed, and a South Korean vehicle had killed two American schoolgirls, there would have been "hell to pay."

President Bush has apologized for the deaths in a message sent via his ambassador in Seoul. But this has done little to ease the rising wave of anti-U.S. sentiment since the acquittal of the two U.S. soldiers.

The public outcry led a U.S. congressional delegation to cancel a scheduled trip to South Korea. The team, led by Henry Hyde, chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives International Relations Committee, was due to arrive in Seoul on Saturday. The delegation was to have met with the South Korean president and a group of North Korean defectors. But in a statement, the U.S. embassy said the trip was postponed, so it wouldn't become the focus of demonstrations.

The military agreement governing the legal status of U.S. troops in South Korea has become a controversial issue ahead of the country's presidential elections, scheduled for December 19.

South Korean President Kim Dae-Jung has joined all the major presidential candidates in calling for changes to the agreement. But U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who met South Korea Defense Minister Lee Jun in Washington on Thursday, said he saw no reason for the agreement governing the 37,000 U.S. forces in South Korea to be changed.