Eviction begins at UK's biggest traveller site

19th October 2011, Comments 0 comments

Residents and activists hurled missiles at police and a caravan was torched as the clearance of Britain's biggest illegal travellers' site got under way Wednesday.

Shortly before sunrise, at the culmination of a decade-long court battle, more than 50 police officers in riot gear entered the Dale Farm site in southeast England to begin clearing the six-acre (2.4 hectare) camp.

They were met with resistance from seasoned activists who have joined the Irish traveller residents at the site near the town of Basildon in Essex. Many of the demonstrators taking on the police wore blue jumpsuits and face masks.

Police said two people were shot with Taser stun guns, while one person was arrested.

Police entered the camp from the back, bypassing the barricades built up by protesters at the front entrance.

Some female residents were seen in tears as the police lines approached, and residents shouted abuse at the officers.

Police said they had moved in following indications that violence was likely to occur, and the leader of the local council claimed protesters had threatened officers with iron bars.

"Intelligence received indicated protesters had stockpiled various items with the intent of using these against bailiffs and police," Essex Police said in a statement.

"The first officers on the site were attacked with missiles being thrown, including rocks and liquids. These officers were fully equipped to deal with this situation."

Basildon Council, the local authority, has fought a long battle with the Irish travellers, who own the land but lack planning permission to build on it.

There are tight restrictions on the use of "green belt" land, in this case the ring of protected countryside surrounding London.

The Dale Farm site comprises 51 unauthorised plots, on which caravans and some chalet-type houses are home to up to 400 people, including many families and their children.

"The memory of Dale Farm will weigh heavily on Britain for generations -- we are being dragged out of the only homes we have in this world," said resident Kathleen McCarthy.

"Our entire community is being ripped apart by Basildon Council and the politicians in government.

"We will do our best to stay but it looks like we have no hope."

Residents lost the final stage of their eviction battle on Monday when the Court of Appeal in London refused to give the travellers permission to make any further challenges to their eviction order.

Basildon Council wanted to start the eviction last month after a court victory but the travellers were able to delay the move until now using a series of legal avenues.

The council has set aside up to £18 million ($28.4 million, 20.5 million euros) to clear the site.

Basildon Council leader Tony Ball said: "The premeditated and organised scenes of violence that we have already seen, with protesters throwing rocks and bricks, threatening police with iron bars and setting fire to a caravan, are shocking.

"These are utterly disgraceful scenes and demonstrate the fact some so-called supporters were always intent on violence.

"Nonetheless we are going to press on with this operation with our partners in a safe, dignified and humane way and will uphold the law."

The high-profile campaign to block the eviction has attracted support from Oscar-winning actress Vanessa Redgrave and a former advisor to the United Nations.

The Dale Farm situation has shone the spotlight on the nomadic, largely ethnic Irish traveller communities in Britain, following a hugely popular television documentary series called "Big Fat Gypsy Weddings".

© 2011 AFP

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