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Ex-SAS take on eco warriors

BAILIFFS WITH specialist military training will face ex-Army eco warriors in close-quarter battle over the building of Britain's first toll motorway.

Former SAS troopers are among bailiffs recruited to evict scores of eco protesters opposing construction of the Birmingham Northern Relief Road (BNRR).

They are part of an elite squad the protesters call the "Men in Black" because they wear black overalls and balaclava masks. The "Men in Black" work underground, forcibly removing the hard core of eco protesters buried deep in labyrinths of tunnels secured by reinforced steel doors.

Many protesters are also ex-Services, so the imminent struggle is likely to be a match of sophisticated martial skills. Following a recent High Court decision giving the legal go-ahead for the BNRR, the "Men in Black" arrived last week at a protest camp by the start of the new road in Staffordshire, signalling that the battle is about to begin.

Chris Kells, of the Birmingham Friends of the Earth, said both sides were on "red alert". The under-sheriff of Staffordshire, John James, is said to be poised to order an assault on the camp. Mr James said writs and eviction notices were ready, but refused to say when he would order in his mini army.

The former soldiers who have turned eco warriors believe they have created an "impregnable" defence system to stop the pounds 700m motorway.

Their co-ordinator is a former infantryman, Muppet Dave, 32, a veteran of several big road protests. His most publicised stunt was a 12-day stand- off underground in the protest against the runway extension at Manchester airport. He believes many former Servicemen are attracted to the alternative lifestyle and idealistic commitment offered by the road protest movement.

"One of the reasons for that is because when you leave the Army it is very hard to get back into normal life," he said. "Many also embrace pacifism because of their Army experience. When you are in the forces you really get to see what the Government is like."

Muppet Dave said an esprit de corps had evolved between the adversaries and there was an understood code of practice.

"The irony of this situation is that I was trained by the Government and I have put that training to use here. We have used our house defence training and they use their training for fighting in built-up areas.

"We talk to them down in the tunnels and some tell us about their past and others don't. We tell them we are defending our country and we ask if they are." He said the "Men in Black" were committed to safety and non-violence. But other protesters claim they can be threatening and abusive.

The "Men in Black" are recruited by a secretive company named Specialist Group International, based in Redhill, Surrey, which is headed by another former military man, Peter Fauldings. Several companies have capitalised on the recent big anti-road protests. Authorities spend millions of pounds dislodging the environmental activists from fortified tree houses and underground bolt holes. Their specialists can earn up to pounds 850 a day apiece. Total bailiff costs for clearing the route of the BNRR are likely to exceed pounds 17,000 a day, and the eviction could take many weeks.

Another company, Richard Turner Ltd of Chesterfield, provides climbers to help remove protesters isolated high in trees or on flying walkways.

But Mr Turner said he feared his highly lucrative niche could itself be in danger, because the Government's decision to suspend or cancel many of the biggest road schemes meant the era of the direct action anti- road protest was closing.

"This [the BNRR protest] is the last of the big ones," he said.

Work on the 27-mile BNRR, linking the M6 at Cannock, Staffordshire, and the M42 at Coleshill, Warwickshire, is due to start next year and motorists will have to pay pounds 2.50 to use it.

The road is designed to ease congestion on the M6, but protesters say it will cut a huge swathe through greenbelt countryside, cross two protected nature sites, destroy scores of homes, blight many others and threaten local jobs.