Gang 'was paid to force anti-road protesters from tree house'

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The Independent Online
NINE members of a gang were paid pounds 100 each to remove anti-motorway protesters by force from a tree house in east London, the Old Bailey was told yesterday, writes Martin Whitfield.

The gang staged a late-night assault on the tree - the focal point of the M11 protest - armed with crowbars and claw hammers and set fire to the trunk with petrol, according to the prosecution.

Protesters had occupied the old chestnut tree in Wanstead for several months after successfully claiming it was an official dwelling. It was eventually destroyed to make way for the new road.

Those responsible for recruiting the assailants were not identified in court. Warwick MacKinnon, for the prosecution, said that the attack last December was organised by those 'who did not share the aims of the protesters and wanted them out'.

The gang had been recruited in the Winchester Club in Southend, Essex, and was offered cash to 'remove a few squatters'. There were no serious injuries, but the tree was heavily charred.

Martin Courtney, 38, of Leigh-on-Sea, and John Roe, 44, of Southend, who were arrested after a car chase away from the scene, both deny two charges of arson, but have pleaded guilty to affray.

It was alleged that Courtney was 'a leading figure' in the raid even though he tried to prevent anyone getting burned by shouting a warning to those in the tree house and helping them down from it. Roe was said to have driven the group to Wanstead and allowed weapons and petrol cans to be stored in his car.

When one protester tried to photograph Courtney, he and others took off at high speed in a car driven by Roe, chased by police. The car stopped and three men got out and have never been caught. Roe was arrested quietly, but Courtney put up a struggle, the court was told.

The case continues today.