Taiwan ruling party gets 2 mln signatures for UN vote

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TAIPEI, Oct 31 (Reuters) Taiwan's ruling party today said it had gathered 2.2 million signatures in support of its bid to hold a referendum on joining the United Nations, a move that is certain to raise Beijing's ire.

The Democratic Progressive Party said that within three weeks it would send its proposed referendum to Taiwan election officials, seeking to qualify it alongside a presidential election on March 22.

The initiative would let voters say whether they want Taiwan to join the 192-member United Nations.

''We want the whole Taiwan population to have a voice,'' party member Huang Hui-yuan yelled over dancing, speeches and ''U.N. for Taiwan'' banners at a ceremony held in part to celebrate the signature drive.

A minimum of 1 million signatures was required to hold a referendum, according to the party.

Beijing opposes Taiwan's UN efforts because it has claimed the self-ruled, democratic island as part of its own territory since the end of the Chinese civil war in 1949 and pledged to take it by force if necessary.

U.S. officials also have warned against the UN quest, saying it threatens to upset the delicate but peaceful status quo between Taiwan and China.

The government of Taiwan, still officially termed the Republic of China, held the Chinese UN seat from its inception in 1946 until 1971, when the communist People's Republic of China took its place.

Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian, who favours greater independence from China, has put UN membership at the top of the agenda in the final months of his eight years in office.

He said earlier in the week he was sure the measure would pass, signalling a rejection of any unification with China.

The United Nations is not obligated to take action if the referendum passes, prompting suspicion in Taiwan that the president wants the referendum to keep his party in the limelight by rallying the public behind an emotional issue.

Taiwan's main opposition party is working on a competing referendum, which analysts say could confuse voters and cause both to fail.

Taiwan's Central Election Commission must verify the identification of each signature before letting the referendum go before voters, a commission spokeswoman said.

REUTERS ARB KP1650

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