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Riot police stand by as squat is cleared

RESIDENTS of what was once Europe's biggest squat were evicted from a mansion block in a dawn raid yesterday.

About 250 police officers in riot gear stood by as officials from Brent council evicted around 40 people from Rutland Park Mansions in Willesden, north-west London. Some had been squatting in the Victorian apartment block since the mid-Eighties.

Officers came equipped for battle. But the squatters left with little resistance and the 42 flats were cleared within 35 minutes.

'We've been about saving the buildings, not destroying them,' said Gavin Fothergill, a resident for more than three years and secretary of the campaign to save the flats. 'We felt that the police wanted to provoke us but that isn't what we are about.'

The four-storey building has been sold by Brent council to a local housing association, which plans to convert the present four- bedroom flats into 72 two-bedroom units for homeless families.

Squatters say the conversion will destroy the building. Their plan, which has been approved by the Victorian Society, was to renovate the flats then lease them to the homeless.

Until last month the apartment block was home to 160 people. Left to crumble by the Conservative-run council, it had been decorated and maintained by its residents - who included skilled craftsmen, professionals and travellers staying temporarily.

The building was declared 'surplus stock' in 1987 and the council planned to demolish it. Local residents got together with the squatters to ensure its survival. Then the council decided to sell it to Paddington Churches Housing Association for pounds 540,000.

Last month, the possession order was secured. Some squatters planned to appeal in the hope of buying time. But by Saturday morning most were resigned. The planned raid had been leaked and residents were already moving their belongings out. When the officials arrived most left peacefully. The 'heavy-handed' police operation was a waste of money, they said.

Scotland Yard defended police tactics, saying they had found what appeared to be a booby trap at the top of one of the stairwells which could have seriously injured officers.

But squatters said the alleged trap - a board, balanced between second-floor banisters and scaffolding and piled high with objects rescued from skips - was a storage area that had been there for years.

(Photograph omitted)