A quasi-military operation is underway at a site in western France amid clashes between 2,500 gendarmes and around 250 eco-warriors they are trying to evict from an abandoned airport project.
Police fired teargas and stun grenades and activists while anarchists pelted stones and petrol bombs during the dawn operation to clear the site at Notre-Dame-des-Landes.
The militants have refused to leave the farmland which authorities say they are continuing to occupy illegally despite winning a decades-long struggle to prevent the construction of a controversial airport to serve the Atlantic coast, which the government finally scrapped in January.
It had told the protesters to clear out by spring, but a bunch of die-hard eco-warriors and farmers who had turned the zone into a utopian experiment in anti-capitalism, said they had no intention of leaving.
In a statement, the protesters expressed anger over the destruction of their huts and shelters, vowing that "We will not leave".
They have tried to block the police’s advance with burning barricades of tyres and wooden pallets. One officer was injured in the eye with a distress flare, the interior ministry said, while security sources said one person was arrested.
By late morning, authorities said they had evacuated seven squats and that another three were in “in the process of being cleared”.
“The objective was conducted in a swift manner. We met with stiff resistance. All the barricades were set on fires. Some contained gas canisters,” said Richard Lizurey, head of the French gendarmerie.
The activists started occupying the site in 2008 and have since built up a community that they claim is a model of sustainable farming and political debate.
A first attempt to evacuate them in 2012 failed.
In January, President Emmanuel Macron won plaudits for finally deciding to ditch plans for the airport, ending years of vacillation by successive governments.
Supporters had argued that it would boost the local economy but environmentalists countered that the area was of unique natural interest and that a new facility costing 730 million euros was unnecessary given relatively light traffic at the existing Nantes airport.
The timing of the operation is likely to be interpreted as significant coming amid frustration of the travel chaos created by a rolling national rail strike. A poll on Sunday suggested that 62 per cent French want the government to push ahead with rail reform, suggesting they are tired of the strikes and want order restored.
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