LONDON (AP) — British police in riot gear on Wednesday used sledgehammers to clear the way for the eviction of a community of Irish Travelers from a site where they have lived illegally for more than a decade.
A large force of police and bailiffs faced resistance from residents and supporters who threw objects or struggled with officers at the Dale Farm site, 30 miles (50 kilometers) east of London. One mobile home was set on fire as police moved in and several protesters chained themselves to barricades with bicycle locks in a bid to slow down the evictions.
Essex Police said two protesters were Tasered and one person arrested and that police officers had been attacked with rocks and other missiles as they tried to enter the site.
The conflict over the settlement has simmered since 2001, when Travelers bought and settled on a former scrap yard next to a legal Travelers' site.
The local authority says it's a simple planning issue — the 86 families lack permission to pitch homes on the land. The Travelers, 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.
"We are being dragged out of the only homes we have in this world," said Kathleen McCarthy, a Dale Farm resident. "We will do our best to stay but it looks like we have no hope."
Lily Hayes, who identified herself as a human rights observer, accused the police of using unnecessary force. Authorities said the violence was coming from the Travelers and their supporters.
"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.
"These are utterly disgraceful scenes and demonstrate the fact some so-called supporters were always intent on violence," Ball said.
There are estimated to be between 15,000 and 30,000 Irish Travelers in Britain, where they are recognized as a distinct ethnic minority by the government.
The legal battle over Dale Farm dragged on for years, through eviction orders and last-minute reprieves, until the Travelers lost a final appeal last week.
Traveler evictions are common across Britain, but few are as high-profile as Dale Farm. Oscar-winning actress and political activist Vanessa Redgrave came to the community's support, and the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination urged authorities to find "a peaceful and appropriate solution" to the crisis.