'Temporary halt' for controversial German rail project

5th October 2010, Comments 0 comments

Opponents of a contentious rail project in Germany that prompted violent clashes last week gave a guarded welcome on Tuesday to comments indicating a temporary halt in construction work.

Tanja Goenner, environment minister in Baden-Wuerttemberg state, said that the destruction of the south wing of Stuttgart's historic train station would be halted -- for now.

"We will leave it as it is. And I believe that this is a signal," Goenner told ZDF public television late Monday. "We are ready for dialogue but it is very difficult to offer a complete stop in building work."

Baden-Wuerttemberg's under-fire premier Stefan Mappus said meanwhile in a guest editorial for the Handelsblatt business daily that no more trees would be cut down in Stuttgart's Schlossgarten park for another year.

But Axel Wieland from the BUND green pressure group reserved judgement.

"We cannot say at the moment if these are really positive developments, if there really is something new, or whether what has been announced are steps that would have happened anyway," Wieland told AFP.

The seven-billion-euro (9.6-billion-dollar) plan to modernise southwestern Germany's rail network has prompted mass protests in recent months, culminating on Thursday in heavy clashes that left more than 100 people injured.

Opponents say that a majority of people are against the project, dubbed "Stuttgart 21," which they say will be late, much more expensive than planned, potentially dangerous and will do little or nothing to speed up rail traffic.

In particular, people in the wealthy city object to the partial destruction of Stuttgart's interwar station and the felling of hundreds of trees in the city centre.

The project is set to become a major issue in elections in Baden-Wuerttemberg on March 27, after which the conservatives could find themselves out of the state government for the first time since 1952.

This would be a major blow to Chancellor Angela Merkel, an ally of Mappus, who was due to make a statement in the state parliament on Wednesday.

The authorities were heavily criticised for their handling of Thursday's protests, which saw riot police use water cannons, tear gas and batons to disperse protestors, some of them teenagers.

Police at first accused protestors of lobbing bottles but then retracted this, saying only chestnuts had been thrown. Photos of the clashes were splashed across newspapers' front pages on Friday.

© 2010 AFP

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