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Police end church protest

French police and riot troops mounted a joint operation at dawn yesterday to evict more than 400 Africans, including about 100 children, from a central Paris church where they had taken refuge. They had occupied the church since Monday in a joint action supported by immigrants and equal rights groups to demand the legalisation of their status in France.

Police staked out the church from 2am, then launched their raid shortly before six, smashing down the church door.

The police said the operation had been carried out "humanely and with every effort to avoid violence".

While the majority had agreed to leave the church peacefully, more than 70 refused to go. By 9am they were still in the church precincts, sitting defiantly on the cold, wet ground. Surrounded by dozens of police in full riot gear, they were a bizarrely colourful sight amid the rush of morning commuters and shoppers.

A crowd of a hundred or so gathered around the police barriers, some telling the protesters to go back where they had come from, others shouting their support. Fierce arguments broke out. "I'm Jewish", said one woman, "and we were like them once. Let them stay." The church of St Ambroise is on the edge of the Marais, a traditionally Jewish section of the city.

The Africans, mostly from Mali, Mauritius and Senegal, offered eloquent testimony to the confusion of French immigration laws, which sometimes leave spouses and children with different nationality status. By yesterday evening, the protesters had moved on, occupying a nearby gymnasium.