Fighting back - the Inuit forced from their homes to protect the US

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Through a cluster of abandoned wooden houses painted in bright yellows and reds a savage Arctic wind howls. The rusting metal remnants of a Cold War missile battery poke through the snow.

Through a cluster of abandoned wooden houses painted in bright yellows and reds a savage Arctic wind howls. The rusting metal remnants of a Cold War missile battery poke through the snow.

For 50 years, Uummanaaq, deep inside the Arctic Circle and 800 miles from the North Pole, has been a ghost town. But this desolate frozen place will soon be at the centre of a battle over George Bush's long-term military defence strategy.

Some 200 Inuit families, who were ordered out of their wooden and turf homes in Uummanaaq in 1953 to make way for the Thule US military base, may be about to do for Star Wars, Washington's missile defence shield programme, what global peace campaigners have failed to achieve.

The base at Thule has been a vital element of US Arctic defence strategy since the end of the Second World War, providing Washington's "eyes and ears" over the North Pole. But the human cost to the Inuit population who lived, hunted and fished here for more than 1,000 years before the Americans came, has been vast.

"We were given just four days to get out," Jess Qujaukitsoq, a former hunter now in his eighties, said. "The ice was breaking as we travelled north. We had to do everything by ourselves, on our wooden sleds. Men, women and children slept in cotton tents. One woman died. No one helped us, neither the Americans nor the Danes."

Because Greenland is technically part of the Kingdom of Denmark, the 50-year Inuit struggle for justice is to culminate at a hearing at the Danish Supreme Court this month. The court will rule on their claim to £20m in compensation, and legal title to the Thule military zone, which covers hundreds of square kilometres.

The base had been earmarked to become an essential part of Washington's long-term military agenda, the missile defence shield, or Star Wars project. Washington needs effective and reliable advanced warning systems to identify and track enemy missiles long before they reach their target. The Arctic provides the most direct route of attack for any missile fired from, say, central Asia or the Middle East.

Should the Inuit win, the consequences internationally could be far-reaching. If they gain title to the land, the Greenlanders would become the US military's landlords. And unlike Denmark, which supports Washington's missile defence plans, Greenlanders fear an upgraded radar base would turn the Arctic wilderness around Thule into a military, perhaps even a nuclear, target.

A lower Danish court had rejected the Inuit land claim, although it did acknowledge the hunters' right to compensation. The problem for the Inuit is to persuade judges to overrule an internationally recognised military treaty between Denmark and Washington.

Christian Harlang, the lawyer for the Inuit, says: "It's an argument over what rule of law applied in Greenland in 1953. But there is no law which allows a government to co-opt traditional hunting land without compensation at the time. And there are clear precepts in international law governing the rights of indigenous peoples that can be applied retrospectively in this case. The Thule people are still being denied their rightful property."

At its height, Thule housed 10,000 US military personnel, fighter aircraft, and even nuclear weapons.

A B-52 bomber crashed into the frozen sea near the base in 1968, scattering four nuclear warheads across the pack- ice. Officially, Greenland was nuclear-free at the time.

The families who moved out in 1953 were relocated to Qaanaaq, 100 miles to the north. It remains one of the world's most northerly communities, and the last in Greenland to derive its main income from traditional seal, walrus and narwhal hunting. Apart from the constant baying of huskies, life is quiet here. But the memories are fresh.

"Uummanaaq was the home of our forefathers," said Frank Angmalortok, a leading Qaanaaq hunter whose father was among those exiled. "We want our land back. Besides, these are prime hunting lands for fox and walrus. The Americans have no use for most of it, and they don't respect it".

The protests started to be heard after Greenland gained partial home rule from Denmark in 1979. "They have been using our country free of charge for 50 years," said Aqqaluk Lynge, a nationalist member of the Greenlandic parliament. "It's time they started paying a fair rent."

For a growing number of Greenlanders, the Thule case has become a rallying cry for total Greenlandic independence. Members of Denmark's centre-right ruling coalition are privately dismissive of such arguments. "The locals are perfectly safe", one Danish military officer said. "If it came to that, one conventional bomb would be enough to blow up the Thule radar installation. If I had a nuclear bomb, I wouldn't waste it on Greenland".

But the anti-missile defence sentiment has sent American and Danish officials scurrying to soothe, as far as possible, Greenland's concerns. Politicians from Greenland's capital, Nuuk, have been invited to meetings in Washington. The Americans have already promised to hand over the small area surrounding Uummanaaq by 2006.

A public debate is also growing in Denmark over what an Inuit victory would mean for the future of the Thule base. Greenland's second-largest political grouping, the far-left Inuit party, has long been opposed to the missile defence project, given the ongoing concerns expressed by Russia and China. Others suggest it is likely to boil down to money. Greenland needs the Danes at least as much as the Americans need Thule. The world's largest island gains £250m-a-year in handouts from Denmark. Denmark appears to get little in return, except its legal tenure over the strategically important Nato base.

"The Greenlanders would never close down Thule," said Henrik Claes Petersen, a commentator on the Politiken newspaper. "Maybe the Americans would agree to hand back most, if not all the land. Ultimately, the Danish would probably find a way to forcibly expropriate the territory: buy it back off the Inuit, just as they should have 50 years ago."

Living on the edge

Inuit hunters and their families started crossing the 200 miles of the Bering Land Bridge from Siberia to the polar north 30,000 years ago. They reached Greenland about 5,000 years ago.

The Inuit are the most geographically scattered people on earth, with an estimated 120,000 spread across a 3,200-mile Arctic territory stretching across Greenland, Russia, Alaska and Canada.

Their belief system has roots in Shamanism and holds that all people, animals, things and forces of nature have spirits.

Inuits who still live in traditional hunting areas eat polar bears, seals and whale meat, but legislation banning whale hunting, pollution of the oceans and global warming have threatened these traditions.

All but 8,000 of Greenland's population of 56,000 are Inuits. Many were resettled by Denmark from remote Arctic hunting settlements to the capital, Nuuk, in the 1960s.