British PM strikes 'tax havens' deal ahead of G-8

LONDON (AFP) - Britain on Saturday struck a deal with its overseas territories clamping down on tax evasion, giving Prime Minister David Cameron a stronger hand as he prepares to host a G-8 summit focusing on trade, tax and financial transparency.

The two-day summit at a luxury resort in Northern Ireland, which starts on Monday, will also centre on the Syria conflict.

During pre-G-8 talks at his Downing Street office, Mr Cameron reached an agreement with territories such as the Cayman Islands and the crown dependencies of Jersey, Guernsey and the Isle of Man, which are often seen as tax havens.

They agreed a series of actions aimed at promoting transparency and exchange of information between tax jurisdictions.

"It is a very positive step forward and it means that Britain's voice in the G-8 and the campaigning on this issue around the world for proper taxes, proper companies and proper laws ... will be stronger," Mr Cameron said afterwards.

"Let's be clear why this tax issue matters. If companies don't pay their taxes or individuals don't pay their taxes we all suffer as a result."

He said his programme for the Group of Eight world powers was about "proper companies, proper taxes and proper global rules ensuring that openness delivers the benefits it should for rich and poor countries alike.

"Aid is important but these things matter just as much. Now is the time.

This is the agenda. The world should get behind it." There was progress late Friday towards what Mr Cameron has admitted would be the biggest prize of the summit - the start of formal negotiations between the European Union and the United States on a free trade agreement.

EU trade ministers finally thrashed out an agreement on how to negotiate for a deal, after meeting a French demand to exclude the key audiovisual sector.

But the Syrian conflict looks set to dominate the talks after Washington upped the ante by pledging military aid to rebels seeking to oust President Bashar al-Assad.

The White House said for the first time on Thursday that the regime had used chemical weapons, notably sarin gas, on multiple occasions against the opposition - crossing what it has described as a red line.

The issue of Syria topped the agenda of an hour-long pre-summit videoconference on Friday between Mr Obama and the leaders of France, Germany, Britain and Italy.

"They discussed the situation in Syria and how G-8 countries should all agree to work on together a political transition to end the conflict," a Downing Street spokesman said.

Officials said Washington would increase military support to the rebels, a move welcomed by Britain and France who successfully pushed for a lifting of the EU arms embargo on Syria last month.

Damascus rejected the US accusations as "lies", while Moscow, a key player due to its long-standing support for Mr Assad, said they were "unconvincing" and hurt efforts to make peace.

Russian President Vladimir Putin was to meet Cameron in London for pre-summit talks on Sunday and then hold a bilateral meeting with Obama in Belfast on Monday.

The US and Russian leaders will kick-start the G8 discussions on Syria, which British officials hope will get all parties in the conflict closer to the negotiating table.

Moscow and Washington have jointly proposed a peace conference in Geneva, building on a similar meeting last year, but no date has yet been set.

Mr Cameron said he wanted G-8 summits to "get back to a fireside chat" in which leaders sit together "without a lot of advisers and without a lot of communiques, addressing problems of the world that they want to do something about".

Oscar-wining actor Jim Broadbent joined 2,000 anti-poverty campaigners in Belfast's Botanic Gardens, calling for tax changes to help eradicate world hunger.

"There is enough food to go around but it is not getting to one in eight people," he said, "I would like them (G-8 leaders) to redress some of the tax issues where the biggest companies are not paying the tax that they should be," he added.