CRAYS HILL, Essex (Reuters) - Police in riot gear moved in to clear Britain’s biggest illegal travellers’ site on Wednesday, using tasers against iron-bar wielding protesters who bombarded them with rocks and urine.
Officers broke down fences at the rear of the Dale Farm site in Essex while bailiffs began to smash low-rise brick walls with sledgehammers at its entrance as diggers stood ready, heralding the end of a decade-long battle.
The eviction of about 400 travellers near Basildon marks the climax of one of Britain’s most contentious and bitter planning rows in recent years.
The council said talks to bring about a peaceful resolution had been exhausted, and that the travellers and their supporters left on the site had no intention of cooperating with the clearance operation at the six-acre site.
The authorities said the police led the action because they had received intelligence that serious disorder and violence was likely and potential weapons had been stockpiled.
“I am absolutely clear that after 10 years of negotiation to try and find a peaceful solution to this, that actually what we are doing is the right thing,” Basildon Council leader Tony Ball told reporters.
“I think we’ve seen from the level of violence put up by the protesters this morning that it was absolutely right that the police led the operation.”
A few protesters wearing balaclavas and hoods threw missiles, including lumps of concrete and unknown powders, at the police from behind flimsy wooden barricades and rubber rings while flames and smoke went up from a burning caravan.
Essex Police said taser guns had been used against one protester and seven people had been arrested. Paramedics treated six people, with one woman going to hospital with a back injury.
Travellers on the site criticised police tactics.
“The only premeditated violence has come from the police -- they knew exactly what they were doing when they started beating and tasering people,” said Mary Sheridan, a Dale Farm resident who is now staying on a relative’s lawful plot.
Superintendent Trevor Roe said the situation was now calm and bailiffs were clearing the site. Asked about allegations of police violence, he said: “I‘m sure they will claim that.”
He added: “Serious violence was offered to two officers and their response was to protect themselves by deploying taser. Tasers are not generally deployed in public order situations but in this case the officers were threatened directly.”
The protesters have vowed to stay “until the end” with some perched on a gantry and scaffolding above the site. Ball said the eviction operation would “take as long it takes.”
The site’s residents had won a temporary reprieve last month when the High Court issued an injunction stopping officials from clearing the land, but their battle came to an end when they lost a final legal hearing last week.
Travellers say the clearance is a breach of their human rights, targeting a vulnerable group whose choice of lifestyle does not fit in with the mainstream.
The local council argues it is a planning dispute, with the travellers breaking the law by illegally building on the green belt, the band of countryside around London intended to stop urban sprawl.
Many locals had complained of litter and noise from the site. Basildon council said it had tried to find the travellers alternative sites, but talks had been exhausted.
“If we did not take this action then local residents and the nation as a whole would very clearly ask why is there one law for travellers and one for a settled and law-abiding community,” said John Baron, the local Conservative MP.
Among those who had supported the travellers had been actress Vanessa Redgrave and a United Nations’ special rapporteur.
Reporting by Avril Ormsby and Michael Holden; Editing by Steve Addison