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Taiwan to be given observer status on WHO body

Taiwan said it was to be granted observer status on the World Health Organization's supreme governing body, in a further sign of the island's rapidly warming ties with rival China.

Taiwan's accession suggested Beijing had dropped its long opposition to Taipei joining the body and followed local reports that negotiations on the issue between the historic rivals were nearing completion.

Taiwan's Health Minister Yeh Chin-chuan showed reporters a letter from Margaret Chan, director-general of the WHO Secretariat, inviting the island to attend the World Health Assembly (WHA) in the name of Chinese Taipei.

"I wish to invite the Department of Health, Chinese Taipei, to attend the 62nd World Health Assembly as an observer," the letter said.

President Ma Ying-jeou welcomed the news, saying: "this certainly is due to our steps to improve the cross-Strait ties and the diplomatic truce since last year."

Since 1997, Taipei's annual attempts to join the WHA have been thwarted by Beijing, which previously said Taiwan had no right to join the organisation -- as a member, quasi-member or an observer.

Beijing still regards Taiwan as part of its territory awaiting reunification, by force if necessary, although the island has governed itself since it split from the mainland in 1949 at the end of a civil war.

Taiwan was pushed out of the WHO in 1972, a year after losing the "China" seat in the United Nations to Beijing. Names and titles have been highly symbolic issues in the row between Taiwan and China.

However, relations between the two have improved dramatically since President Ma of the China-friendly Kuomintang became president last May promising to boost cross-strait trade and tourism.

China's health ministry confirmed that Taipei had been invited to attend the WHA meeting.

But in Beijing, Taiwan Affairs Office spokesman Li Weiyi did not confirm directly that China had removed its opposition to Taipei's observer status, while signalling that China was looking to end the long-standing deadlock.

"On this issue, we have expressed our attitude many times. Today I want to tell you that we are optimistic about the resolution of this issue," Li told journalists.

The WHA is the highest decision-making body of the WHO, whose 192 member countries meet once a year to agree on policies and appoint a director-general.

Health minister Yeh said he would lead a 15-member delegation to the WHA meeting in Geneva on May 18.

Copyright 2009 AFP Asian Edition
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Author:AFP
Publication:AFP Asian Edition
Date:Apr 29, 2009
Words:396
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