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Brown caught up in battle over Heathrow expansion

London — Villagers wept and environmentalists pledged "direct action" as battle lines were drawn Thursday over the British government’s decision to allow a major expansion of London’s Heathrow airport — notorious around the world for its perennial problems with congestion, punctuality and lost luggage.

"I lose everything — it will mean totally starting again," said Debbie Power, whose pub in the village of Sipson is among the 700 properties earmarked for destruction if the plan to build a third runway and a sixth terminal at Heathrow goes ahead.

In their fury and disappointment, the citizens of Sipson are looking for support to activists from environmentalist group Greenpeace who, in a cunning move, have bought plots of land directly in the path of the proposed third runway.

While green groups and some 50 parliamentarians of Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s ruling Labour Party have vowed to stop construction of the runway "with all mechanism possible," the government insists that the project is essential for Britain’s future economic prosperity and competitiveness.

Brown, who is known to have been a steadfast supporter of the 9-billion-pound (13.2-billion-dollar) project from its first conception, said Thursday’s decision balanced the needs of the economy and the environment.

"It is always our desire to make sure that we protect the economic future of the country while at the same time meeting the very tough environmental conditions that we have set ourselves for noise and pollution and for climate change," he said.

Anti-expansion group Hacan, however, described the government’s move as "the last gasp of the dinosaurs."

"We believe we have won the environmental, social and economic arguments against expansion," said group chairman John Stewart, vowing to fight the government in the courts and "on the tarmac of Heathrow airport."

The government, meanwhile, argues that an expansion of Heathrow, the world’s biggest airport in terms of passenger volume, is vital for the economy and for international competitiveness.

The airport, which started out as a temporary tented village in 1946, has grown relentlessly into a global aviation hub, and now lies in the middle of a densely populated area of West London.

It has faced growing competition over the past decade from rival European airports Frankfurt, Schiphol and Charles de Gaulle in Paris, which have all undergone major redevelopment.

The government insists that, even though flights out of Heathrow could double to more than 700,000 a year by 2030, harmful emissions would be strictly controlled and transport infrastructure to the airport would be sufficiently improved.

Critics are convinced, however, that the project will be stopped in its tracks by a mixture of environmental protest, legal challenges and political developments in Britain.

The Conservatives have pledged to scrap the plan and said they would instead promote investment in a high-speed rail network across Britain should they come to power in elections due this year or in 2010.

London’s conservative mayor, Boris Johnson, Thursday announced a legal challenge to Heathrow expansion and said he would continue to force construction of a new international airport in the Thames estuary outside the capital.

The government’s former chief scientific adviser, David King, predicted Thursday that Heathrow’s third runway would come to be seen as a "white elephant."