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Travellers set for final showdown at Dale Farm

Peter Griffiths - Reuters - Mon, Sep 19th 2011

CRAYS HILL, Essex (Reuters) - Travellers and their supporters barricaded themselves behind newly built brick walls and chained themselves to fences on Monday as officials prepared to evict them from an illegal site in southeast England at the end of a decade-long battle. 

One woman was chained by her neck to the main gate, while others lay down under cars or clambered up hastily erected scaffolding and wooden platforms as they waited for the bailiffs to arrive.

"If you attempt to open this gate you will kill her," one protester called Julia told reporters at the site. "All over the site, people are attached to immovable objects. If force is used, limbs will be broken or worse."

Banners draped around the caravans and low-rise buildings said "No Ethnic Cleansing," "Save Us" and "Justice." A police helicopter hovered overhead in the late summer sunshine.

The showdown between the bailiffs and Travellers and a variety of protest groups who have joined their cause marks the climax of one of Britain's most contentious and bitter planning rows in recent years.

Basildon Council in Essex said last-ditch talks had broken down on Monday morning after the Travellers asked for the eviction to be delayed until November 22. Council leader Tony Ball said many families had already left and that bailiffs would enter the site to evict those remaining and their supporters as scheduled on Monday.

"I am very disappointed we have come to where we are today," he told reporters. "Our operatives, when they begin the site clearance, which will be today, will do everything they can to make sure that it is done in a safe and professional manner."

The council said it was purely 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.

However, the Travellers say the argument's roots go deeper. They accuse the council and courts of breaching their human rights, targeting a vulnerable group whose choice of lifestyle doesn't fit in with the mainstream.

Actress Vanessa Redgrave visited the site to lend her support to the 400 Travellers there and said she hoped "humanity would triumph." The United Nations' special rapporteur on adequate housing, Raquel Rolnik, urged the authorities last month to hold more talks with the residents to reach a deal on relocation.

Many locals support the eviction, however. They say the planning laws should apply to everyone and they have complained of litter and noise from Dale Farm.

The local authority wants to evict the Travellers and clear the six-acre site after the courts ruled that they had settled there illegally.

Basildon Council issued a 28-day notice to them to leave the 51 pitches, built partly on a former scrapyard next door to a legal site, but the eviction was delayed by a last-minute High Court injunction. The legal battle appeared to end on August 31 when the High Court dismissed the appeal.

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