Thursday’s deal scales back the original plan for a free trade bloc of 34 nations.

The result is an "FTAA a la carte," in which Washington reaches out to individual countries ready for free trade to underscore some progress, and shows flexibility with those unwilling or unable to join the group by the 2005 deadline.

Representatives from Mexico, Chile, and Canada - three countries that favoured a broader agreement entering the meeting - said late Thursday that they were satisfied with the outcome.

Work towards reaching the final agreement "is evolving," said Chilean Foreign Minister Soledad Alvear, while Canadian Industry Minister Pierre Pettigrew praised "solid progress" at the meeting.

Washington will meanwhile continue to seek separate trade agreements with individual countries and regional groups.

The United States already has a free trade deal with Canada, Mexico and Chile.

Final stage negotiations

US officials are already in the final stages of negotiating a free trade deal with the five Central American countries -Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador and Costa Rica.

And US officials will begin free trade talks next year with members of the Andean Community - Colombia, Peru, Ecuador and Colombia - as well as with Panama.

Miami Police officers got a bit
dirty while clearing the crowd

But negotiators sidestepped addressing controversial issues such as investment, intellectual property and government purchases. Thorny issues such as agricultural subsidies and dumping were not addressed as they are to be resolved by the World Trade Organisation, as the US has wanted.

The move skirts what some people thought was a likely collapse of the talks, but downscales the ambitious goals set when the plan was envisioned back in 1994.

Protesters opposed to the FTAA clashed with riot police earlier in the day, as tens of thousands of union workers and sympathisers marched against the pact.

Large police presence

A huge group of police officers, standing arm to arm in rows sometimes four deep, kept the protesters far from the swanky hotel where trade ministers were meeting. Hundreds more police waited on side streets as reinforcements.

An estimated 25,000 protesters, mostly belonging to mainstream US labour unions, marched and raised their fists against the FTAA, which they say will result in environmental abuses and a loss of jobs.

At least 76 protesters were arrested, most after sundown, police said.

"We're moving the FTAA into a new phase, from general concepts to positive realities and opportunities, to a practical stage," said US Trade Representative Bob Zoellick, as he closed the event at a press conference along with representatives of all the other countries.

"These are important steps forward, but very important work lies ahead," he said. "We're moving into an intensive phase."   

Talks to complete the FTAA, which would create the world's largest free trade area, with a market of some 800 million people, "could be successfully concluded by the end of next year," said Brazilian Foreign Minister Celso Amorim.