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Snubbed Taiwan president rejects US transit offer

Written by: Staff

TAIPEI, May 4 (Reuters) Taiwan's independence-leaning president today turned down Washington's offer of a refuelling stop in far-flung Alaska, a day after the island's closest ally scotched his plans for an overnight stay in New York.

President Chen Shui-bian made no mention of the apparent rift with the United States before leaving for visits to Paraguay and Costa Rica, and instead blamed China for ''trampling on the dignity'' of Taiwan's people.

''China's suppression against Taiwan has gone from bad to worse,'' he said. ''China should not push Taiwan into a corner, leaving Taiwan without a living space in the international community.'' His foreign minister was more blunt, accusing China yesterday of ''blackmailing'' the United States with issues such as the nuclear crisis in Iran, refugees in Sudan and North Korea.

Washington usually allows Taiwan leaders to enter the United States in transit, but refuses official visits so as not to irk China, which says the self-ruled island must accept reunification with the mainland after more than half a century of separation.

China views any country that plays host to Chen as encouraging his vision of a separate Taiwanese identity.

Local media said Chen had hoped to stop in New York to score diplomatic points after Chinese President Hu Jintao's trip to the United States last month.

But he had to delay his departure yesterday because of foot-dragging by Washington. Word came later that his plane would only be allowed to refuel in Anchorage, making it the worst transit treatment a Taiwan leader has received in 12 years.

STRAINS One Taiwan media report said President George W Bush had blocked Chen's plan because his administration needs China's support over the Iran nuclear crisis at the United Nations.

Washington switched diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing in 1979 and considers the mainland communist authorities as China's sole legitimate government. But it is also obliged by law to help Taiwan defend itself, and Bush vowed early in his administration to do ''whatever it took'' to defend the island.

However, there have been signs of strain between Taipei and its main arms supplier since February, when Chen scrapped a dormant but politically significant council on eventual reunification with China.

The Foreign Ministry declined to confirm local media reports that Chen's plane would make a protest stop in Libya or Lebanon.

''We can only confirm the president will not transit in the United States and we won't say anything until his plane touches down,'' spokesman Michel Lu said after Chen's departure.

''We are an independent, sovereign country and we are free to make our own choice,'' he added, when asked if the rejection of an Anchorage refuelling stop was a protest against Washington.

Taiwan's main opposition Kuomintang, which favours closer ties with China, called Chen's visit a major diplomatic setback.

''The decision made by the lame-duck president is not only a humiliation to Chen Shui-bian but an embarrassment to all Taiwan people,'' said Kuomintang lawmaker John Chiang, a former foreign minister.

Reuters KD GC1139

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