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Last Updated: Saturday, 17 December 2005, 02:47 GMT
Final push for world trade talks
EU trade chief PEter Mandelson at the WTO talks
Mr Mandelson has warned the talks could stall once more
Delegates from 149 countries are battling to agree a deal in the final two days of Hong Kong trade talks.

The European Union's trade chief has warned talks are "going backwards" in the face of the thorny issues of help for the poorest countries and farming.

The lack of progress has prompted the EU trade chief Peter Mandelson to warn the discussions may achieve nothing.

The US deputy trade representative said "potential is there" for success but "just beyond our fingertips".

"We're ready to negotiate disciplines on food aid to deal with any instances of commercial displacement," said Peter Allgeier.

But Mr Mandelson was less upbeat. "The level of ambition, if anything, is going backwards," he said.

"It is hard to see where progress can be achieved in Hong Kong if the talks continue in this direction," he added,

'Finely balanced'

But the World Trade Organisation (WTO) believes a minimal accord is possible.

Cotton: African cotton producers say huge US subsidies distort trade but the US says it will only agree a deal on cotton as part of wider settlement on agriculture
Bananas: EU preferences to banana producers in former Caribbean colonies were ruled illegal by the WTO and Latin American countries say tariffs are too high
Food Aid: The EU says that all food aid should be given in cash and that US grain shipments to developing countries distort the market. The US believes food aid in kind is vital in famine relief

"I think it is finely balanced, but we can still get something this weekend," WTO spokesman Keith Rockwell told Reuters news agency.

His comments came as the WTO began to circulate a draft text of an agreement which hinted at a date for any agreement to come into force.

According to the Associated Press the document suggested 2010 as the year to bring agricultural quotas and subsidies to an end.

Agriculture has proved to be one of the biggest hurdles to any agreement, with the EU refusing to give any further concessions on reducing barriers protecting its farming market.

Poverty warning

But poorer nations have warned they could block any accord unless they get better access to global markets.

"It appears that these talks will bring us nothing at all and even drive us further into poverty," said Arvin Boolell spokesman on sugar for countries from Africa, the Caribbean and Pacific.

"We will not accept any agreement in Hong Kong that is made at our expense."

Should negotiators fail to even agree a minimal pact on trade at the discussions such a development could deal a severe blow to the credibility of the WTO.

Meanwhile, security forces are preparing for a possible escalation in protests outside the Hong Kong venue during the last two days of talks.

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