British police in riot gear used sledgehammers and crowbars Wednesday to clear the way for the eviction of Irish Travellers from a site where they have lived illegally for a decade.
The police and bailiffs faced resistance from several dozen protesters who threw bricks and struggled with officers at the Dale Farm site, set in fields 50 kilometres east of London.
One mobile home was set on fire as police moved in at dawn, and several protesters chained themselves to barricades with bicycle locks to slow down the evictions. Others scaled a 12-metre scaffolding tower, from which police began removing them one by one.
By late morning, police said they were in control of the whole site and bailiffs were preparing to begin removing the Travellers' mobile homes.
The conflict over Dale Farm has simmered since 2001, when Travellers bought and settled on a former scrap yard next to a legal Travellers' site. The legal battle dragged on for years until the Travellers lost a final appeal last week.
The local authority says it's a simple planning issue — the 86 families lack permission to pitch homes on the land. The Travellers, a traditionally nomadic group similar to, but ethnically distinct from, Gypsy or Roma people, call it ethnic cleansing — the latest chapter in a centuries-old story of mistrust between nomads and British society.
Essex Police said two protesters were Tasered and three people arrested Wednesday after police officers were attacked with rocks, other missiles and liquids including urine.
Residents and supporters, however, said police had used excessive force.
"I've been through a lot of evictions, but I've never seen anything like this ... they have come in and started a riot that we never wanted," said resident Kathleen McCarthy, who accused police of roughing up Travellers at the site, injuring three women.
"We are being dragged out of the only homes we have in this world."
Lily Hayes, who identified herself as a human rights observer, also accused the police of using unnecessary force.
The ambulance service said one woman was taken to a hospital with minor back injuries. Five other people were treated for smoke inhalation, breathing difficulties and a nosebleed.
Authorities said the violence was coming not from residents but from their supporters — a mix of anarchists, environmentalists and anti-capitalists who travelled from across Europe to the site.
"The premeditated and organized 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," said Tony Ball, leader of Basildon Council, the local authority.
He said while "no one takes any satisfaction" in the police operation, he was confident that "after 10 years of negotiations to try and find a peaceful solution to this, that what we are doing is the right thing."
There are estimated to be between 15,000 and 30,000 Irish Travellers in Britain, where they are recognized as a distinct ethnic minority.