Police in riot gear began evicting climate activists on Wednesday from a condemned village in western Germany that is due to be demolished for the expansion of a coal mine.
Some stones and fireworks were thrown as officers entered the tiny hamlet of Luetzerath, which has become a flashpoint of debate over the country’s climate efforts, on Wednesday morning.
Police spokesman Andreas Mueller said the attacks on officers were “not nice” but noted that most of the protest so far had been peaceful.
He said police would stick to their tactic of trying to avoid any escalation by offering to let any activists who leave on their own accord to do so without facing further police measures or prosecution.
Still, some protesters complained of undue force by police and others said the scale of the police response – with officers brought in from across the country and water cannon on standby – was itself a form of escalation not justified by the peaceful protest.
At least one woman screamed in apparent pain as officers used force to remove her from a roadblock outside the village.
By Wednesday afternoon dozens of activists remained camped out in Luetzerath, some in elaborate tree houses, as police slowly moved through the village clearing barricades and a communal soup kitchen.
Some activists read books or played accordion while perched atop 10ft tripods. A few sat or stood on the roofs of Luetzerath’s remaining buildings despite the chilly wind.
“I’m really afraid today,” Petra Mueller, a 53-year-old local who had been at the site for several days, said from a top-floor window of one of the few remaining houses.
Ms Mueller said she still held out hope of preserving what is left of Luetzerath “until nothing is left standing; hope dies last”.
Environmentalists say bulldozing the village to expand the nearby Garzweiler coal mine would result in huge amounts of greenhouse gas emissions.
The government and utility company RWE argue the coal is needed to ensure Germany’s energy security.
However, a study by the German Institute for Economic Research calls into question the government’s stance. Its authors found other existing coal fields could be used instead, though the cost to RWE would be greater.
Another alternative would be for Germany to increase production of renewable power, cut demand through energy efficiency measures, or import more coal or gas from abroad, the study found.
Citing the study and the urgent need to curb global carbon emissions, protesters refused to heed a court ruling on Monday that effectively banned them from the area.
Some activists expressed particular anger at the environmentalist Green party, which is part of both the regional and national governments that reached a deal with RWE last year allowing it to destroy the village in return for ending coal use by 2030, rather than 2038.
Vice Chancellor Robert Habeck, a Green who is Germany’s economy and climate minister, defended the agreement as “a good decision for climate protection” that fulfils many of the environmentalists’ demands and saves five other villages from demolition.
“I think climate protection and protests need symbols but the empty hamlet of Luetzerath, where no one lives any more, is the wrong symbol from my point of view,” Mr Habeck told reporters in Berlin.
Climate campaigners counter that expanding a massive open-cast coal mine goes against Germany’s international commitments to reduce emissions of planet-warming greenhouse gases. The country is expected to miss its ambitious targets for the second year in a row.
Luetzerath “is now the European place of crystallisation for the climate movement,” said Lakshmi Thevasagayam, a spokeswoman for the Luetzerath Lives activist group.
“We know that the coal under Luetzerath isn’t needed for energy security — it must remain in the ground so that we can achieve climate justice.”
“Now we can do something against the climate catastrophe, but at some point we won’t be able to any more,” Ms Thevasagayam said.
She accused the police of engaging in “a complete escalation” by moving ahead with the eviction on Wednesday.
RWE said in a statement that a nearly one-mile fence will be built around the site. It appealed to activists to peacefully “end the illegal occupation” of the site it legally owns.
Andreas Mueller, the police spokesman, said authorities were prepared for the eviction operation to last weeks, if necessary.
The heads of several environmental organisations planned to visit Luetzerath on Thursday to express solidarity with the activists there.
A large protest was also scheduled near the site on Saturday, attended by prominent Swedish climate campaigner Greta Thunberg.