French police have used tear gas to disperse rural protesters

Police launched an operation early on Thursday to demolish around a dozen makeshift shelters erected by protesters on Notre-Dames-des-Landes near the city of Nantes.

French police have used tear gas to disperse rural protesters, activists and farmers camping on the site of an abandoned new airport in the west of the country.

A helicopter whirred overhead as police forces threw teargas canisters at protesters. Farmers and activists on the site responded by lobbing Molotov cocktails in the direction of the police while they set barricades on fire to prevent security forces from advancing to the area.

Some 1,500 to 1,700 officers were mobilized in 19 units of the military police force to take part in the operation, according to Richard Lizurey, head of the French gendarmerie.

The operation came a month after an initial push by authorities to clear the demonstrators sparked days of furious clashes between the two sides in clouds of tear gas. Police then vowed that they would clear the entire rural camp, which has grown into a sprawling 1,600-hectare (4,000-acre) settlement since it was first formed in 2008 in protest at plans for construction of an airport.

Authorities scrapped the airport plans in January, but many of the residents of the camp, which is billed as a utopian leftist farming community, insist the government should authorize farming projects they have been running on the massive squat, including livestock and beekeeping.

French Interior Minister Gerard Collomb said that none of the shelters targeted in the Thursday operation was part of a bid by protesters to register agricultural projects with the authorities. He said those living in the shelters had refused any negotiations.

“Their occupants refuse all discussion and reject the idea of occupying the land in a legal fashion,” said a statement from Collomb, adding, “This situation is not acceptable under the rule of law, no more than the climate of insecurity, acts of vandalism and obstruction still seen on the site over recent weeks.”

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