SEOUL, South Korea — South Korea's government announced Thursday it is going ahead with a much-criticized deal to resume imports of U.S. beef, while thousands of protesters took to the streets to denounce the move.

Agriculture Minister Chung Woon-chun said in a nationally televised announcement that the government has finalized new quarantine regulations for U.S. beef in accordance with an April 18 agreement with Washington.

The new regulations call for South Korea to import nearly all cuts of American beef without restrictions on the age of the cattle. That represents a significant easing of previous rules, which banned imports of meat attached to bones or from older cattle considered more susceptible to mad cow disease.

The relaxed rules will take effect as soon as they are published in a government journal in a few days.

Thursday's announcement, which had been delayed amid daily anti-government protests, was the final administrative step necessary to resume U.S. beef imports.

It cleared the way for American beef to return to South Korean store shelves for the first time since last year, when limited imports were briefly allowed before again being suspended.

Some 5,300 tons of U.S. beef, shipped earlier to South Korea but held in customs and quarantine storage facilities, will begin undergoing inspections early next week before being put on the market, according to the ministry.

Chung sought to dispel public concern over mad cow disease, saying the government would immediately halt imports if a new case of the illness breaks out in the United States, and would strictly control cattle parts banned over the disease.

"The government will protect the people's health and food safety by thoroughly managing the inspection and distribution of U.S. beef," he said.

Protesters who have held a series of rallies in Seoul for the past month believe the accord does not adequately protect the country from infected beef.

Thousands gathered Thursday night, holding a candlelight protest at a plaza in front of city hall before some dispersed to march in nearby streets.

Police, who deployed 10,000 anti-riot personnel and blocked off parts of downtown using police buses, estimated the crowd at about 9,000 protesters. There were no immediate reports of clashes.

"The government should listen to the public's voice, withdraw today's announcement and renegotiate with Washington," said Jang Byoung-wook, a 26-year-old college student.

Under the deal, South Korea pledged to scrap nearly all the quarantine restrictions imposed by the previous government to guard against mad cow disease. South Korea suspended imports of U.S. beef after the first American case of mad cow disease appeared in December 2003 in a Canadian-born cow in Washington state. Two subsequent cases were also discovered.

Several efforts to resume imports foundered after banned substances such as bones were discovered in shipments from the United States.

Protesters accuse the government of ignoring their concerns about food safety. Worries about mad cow disease have been fanned by some sensational media reports, but both governments have repeatedly said American beef poses no health risk.

Scientists believe mad cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy, spreads when farmers feed cattle recycled meat and bones from infected animals. The U.S. banned recycled feeds in 1997. In humans, eating meat products contaminated with the cattle disease is linked to variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, a rare and fatal malady.

The rallies, which began in early May, have been mostly peaceful, although tensions flared this week after the government instructed police to take a harder line.

Police have detained more than 200 protesters in recent days, later releasing 92.

The protests are a major headache for President Lee Myung-bak, who took office three months ago. He sought last week to reassure the country over the safety of U.S. beef, but failed to ease public anger.

Critics accuse Lee of making too many concessions on the beef issue in an attempt to gain U.S. congressional approval for a broader bilateral free trade agreement.


Associated Press Writer Jae-soon Chang contributed to this report.