Police target anti-war protester and make off with banners

The veteran peace activist Brian Haw was stripped of his anti-war banners and placards by up to 50 police officers in an early-morning raid in Parliament Square yesterday.

There were chaotic and farcical scenes as police wrestled with nine dishevelled protesters led by Mr Haw, and a 40-metre line of anti-war placards, including two donated by the graffiti artist Banksy, was dismantled and dumped in a metal container. Two demonstrators, Martin McGrath and Maria Gallastegui, who tried to climb the metal container to salvage the placards, were arrested. Mr Haw claimed that officers had seized his "personal belongings" as well, including bedding, clothes and a treasured Bible.

By yesterday afternoon, the 40-metre protest line had shrunk to three metres, with two small placards remaining. The police presence far outweighed that of the protesters, who included a mime artist bearing a thought bubble with the inscription "free speech".

Mr Haw, who has camped in front of the Houses of Parliament since 2001, was incensed at the "raid" - and said he now intended to go on hunger strike. "It was shocking. I would not have believed they could stoop so low. I thought they going to do it decently, to do it through the courts, when they came like thugs in the night. They have completely destroyed all the expressions of people who opposed the war in Iraq," he said."It seems I am going to die in this place now because I'm going to be fasting and praying. What else can I do as a Christian? They have taken my means of showing people what is going on."

The battle between police and the 57-year-old protester has been going on for some time. Last July, the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act came into force, bringing with it powers to halt demonstrations in Parliament Square and its vicinity, a provision widely seen as having been designed with Mr Haw in mind.

Mr Haw, in turn, has claimed the restrictions do not apply to him because his demonstration began in June 2001, before the Act became law. But a Court of Appeal hearing this month rejected his argument and refused leave to appeal to the Lords. The court said he would have to apply to the police for authorisation to continue the protest.

Scotland Yard defended the raid, calling it a partial clearance in response to "continual breaches" of the conditions of the permission imposed on the demonstration. A Scotland Yard spokeswoman said: "This action follows a number of requests to the applicant to adhere to the conditions."

Human rights and anti-war groups criticised the police for heavy-handedness. David Wilson, of the Stop the War Coalition, said Mr Haw was "hardly a radical revolutionary. He is a Christian who has taken it upon himself to remind politicians that occupation and war mean death and destruction to men, women and children."

Doug Jewell, campaigns co-ordinator for Liberty, said the raid showed the "Government's intolerance had reached fever pitch".

Mr Haw is due to appear before Bow Street magistrates at the end of the month to answer charges of breaching conditions to demonstrate in the square.

Yesterday his 20-strong group of supporters at Parliament Square said they were more resolute than ever to continue their protest. Barbara Tucker, 44, from Reading, said: "We will replace the placards and just carry on."