LONDON // Police in riot gear yesterday evicted anti-capitalist protesters who had been occupying an encampment around London's St Paul's Cathedral since October.
Minor scuffles broke out and 20 people were arrested as, just after midnight local time, about 100 riot police and bailiffs moved into the camp on a square adjoining the main entrance of the cathedral built more than 300 years ago.
The eviction, which echoed the one in New York in November when police cleared the anti-Wall Street camp in Zuccotti Park in Lower Manhattan, came five days after the protesters in London had lost their final legal bid to remain in the encampment.
A group of diehard demonstrators tried to defy the eviction by erecting and then mounting a makeshift barricade made from wooden pallets. Others had to be forcibly removed by police after they occupied the steps of the cathedral.
However, all the protesters had been dislodged by daybreak in what a police spokesman described as a "largely peaceful" operation. By yesterday afternoon, the square had been fenced off as a clean-up operation continued.
The occupation of the square caused deep divisions within the Church of England. Three senior clergymen resigned when it seemed the church would back forcible evictions. In the end, it was the City of London Corporation, the local authority for city's central area, that obtained legal authority to get rid of the protesters.
Giles Fraser, who resigned as chancellor of St Paul's over the threatened evictions, reacted with dismay yesterday after the police operation.
"Riot police clearing the steps of St Paul's Cathedral was a terrible sight. This is a sad day for the church," he said.
A spokesman for the cathedral said: "We regret the camp had to be removed by bailiffs. In the past few months, we have all been made to re-examine important issues about social and economic justice and the role the cathedral can play.
"We are fully committed to continuing to promote these issues through our worship, teaching and [the Church of England] Institute. The cathedral is open today and set aside for prayer and reflection. The cathedral is accessible to everyone."
There were very practical reasons why the Anglican Church wanted the protesters to be cleared from around the cathedral, the venue of the marriage of Prince Charles to Princess Diana in 1981.
The presence of the protesters had led to a marked drop in the number of visitors to one of London's most popular tourist attractions, which costs about £20,000 a day (Dh116,511)) to run.
Some of the protesters, about 70 in all when the police moved in, voluntarily packed up their tents rather than see them damaged or confiscated.
Kai Wargalla, a 27-year-old German who has been camping at St Paul's since the occupation began on October 15, said many of the protesters would now be moving to another anti-capitalist camp, which has been established in Finsbury Square in central London.
"It's really sad what's happening today but I think we can be proud of what we've achieved. Our community is being attacked here, but we're going to reconvene and come back stronger," she said.
"We hadn't expected to be evicted from the cathedral steps because previously the church has said it would give us sanctuary when there's a violent eviction.
"There was also some really unnecessary tension and stress caused by the police when they told us we had five minutes to take our things from the camp."
George Barda, a spokesman for Occupy London, the loose-knit organisation that ran the camp, said: "There were some arrests but only for resisting arrest and the main thing to focus on is the reasons we are here and not the drama of what happened last night. Millions of people are already suffering from the [government's spending] cuts and they have barely got going."