Thousands of South Koreans have staged a protest against the United States. It is a sign of growing anti-U.S. sentiment just at a time when Seoul and Washington are seeking a common approach towards North Korea's reactivation of its nuclear operations.

Singing protest songs and waving massive banners, thousands of South Koreans gathered in the center of Seoul, to protest last month's acquittal of two U.S. soldiers whose armored vehicle crushed two South Korean schoolgirls in June.

The verdicts have triggered a wave of popular anger against the United States. The demonstrators' demands range from a direct apology from the U.S. President for the girls' deaths, to an end to the U.S. military presence in the South.

The demonstrators also voiced opposition to Washington's policy of pressuring North Korea to end its nuclear program. Student Yoo Mi Sang was among the protesters. "I think U.S. army in Korea is not helpful for reunification, I think the U.S. army should go back to their country," she said. "I think U.S. government is really pushing North Korea. I think it is really dangerous. I think Bush maybe wants to make a war in Korea. I hate him."

Last week, Pyongyang announced that it is reactivating its nuclear facilities, which had been frozen under a 1994 agreement with the United States.

Washington, Seoul and other allied governments have repeatedly called for Pyongyang to forego its nuclear program, but the North Koreans remain defiant. An editorial in the Communist Party paper Rodong Shinmun expressed "burning hatred for the Yankees" and said the country was prepared to deliver "bitter defeat and death" if America attacks.

President Bush has apologized for the deaths of the two schoolgirls, in a message conveyed through his ambassador in Seoul and during a telephone call to South Korean President Kim Dae-jung late Friday. According to White House spokesman Ari Fleischer, Mr. Bush pledged to work closely with the South Korean government to prevent similar accidents in the future.

A South Korean government spokeswoman said the two presidents also pledged to work together for a peaceful solution to the North Korean situation, and, she said, Mr. Bush ruled out a military attack against the North.

South Korea's political parties welcomed what they called the belated apology. The major candidates in next week's presidential elections have pledged to revise the bilateral treaty between South Korea and the United States, to give Seoul more jurisdiction over U.S. troops who commit crimes while in the country.

The public hostility has already forced the two candidates into more forceful positions against the United States, and it may limit the new administration's flexibility in dealing with North Korea.