Battles renewed on the fields of history

Honiton protesters on pub break as camp is destroyed
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After spending two-and-a-half years creating an elaborate network of underground tunnels and tree-top houses, one of Britain's hardiest groups of anti-road protesters was undone by the lure of the local pub.

While the demonstrators were supping a beer after the arrival of their benefits payments, a small army of contractors was systematically dismantling the Fairmile camp on the A30, near Exeter.

A handful of protesters were yesterday holding out against eviction in underground tunnels, as Trevor Coleman, the Devon under-sheriff, called a press conference at the camp to herald the success of his military-style operation.

"Catching them by surprise has been an enormous advantage," he said. "There were very few in the camp - they were, I believe, down the pub. We found on-site only 20 or 30 people - it was an enormous advantage."

He said that clearing the last protesters from the Fairmile site - the third and last camp blocking the road - might take three days. Fifteen protesters left the site or were evicted during the night and seven others were arrested.

As Mr Coleman spoke, a team of 48 specialist contractors continued efforts to remove five protesters from a network of tunnels and about 15 to 20 more from a dozen tree houses where they had stayed overnight.

The site was cordoned off and today 120 security guards and more than 100 extra police moved in.

The key to the underground eviction operation was the main tunnel, which the experts would not be able to inspect until it had been shored up, said Mr Coleman.

"We understand the tunnels are not well shored," he said. "We are proceeding slowly and carefully because we want to make sure the protesters are safe."

Earlier, Mr Coleman said the operation involved Britain's first major tunnelling eviction. Air had been supplied to those underground, said Mr Coleman, who added: "As far as we know they are fine."

Ground radar was being used to survey the tunnels and tunnelling experts were linked by video to colleagues on the surface.

Mr Coleman said the timing of the operation had taken the protesters "totally by surprise".

"They are demoralised," he said. "We have caught them three times now - I call that a hat-trick."

He was referring to the nine-hour clearance of the nearby Trolheim camp on 12 January and the swift removal of a handful of protesters from the Allercombe camp a few miles away on 27 December.

As climbing specialists began scaling the first three 100ft beech trees on the site and began demolishing "twigloo" dwellings, two protesters clambered into the topmost branches.

The first protester, named as Tom, to be brought down on rope was arrested for obstruction and led away in handcuffs.

In another of the trees, protester Kate provoked laughter all round as she tried to put off one of the climbing contractors by tickling him as he scaled the branches.

The three camps were built over a two-and-a-half year period to oppose a 13-mile road improvement scheme between Exeter and Honiton in Devon.

The scheme is part of a 65-mile improvement of the A30 and A35 between Exeter and Bere Regis, Dorset.

The protesters say the road will destroy ancient trees and animal habitats, blight the countryside and increase air and noise pollution.

Protester Ed admitted yesterday: "Some of us were caught by surprise - I was in the pub myself with three others, and others had left previously."

Asked whether the under-sheriff's tactic had worked, he said: "It did make a bit of difference."