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In peril from eco-terrorism

It is an uncomfortable fact that the violent activities of clandestine animal rights groups have proved remarkably persistent. The Animal Liberation Front has not disappeared with the arrest and conviction of its ringleaders as the Angry Brigade d id nearly 25 years earlier.

The past year has seen a renewal of terrorist campaigns by animal rights militants with a spate of fire bombings and other attacks. Earlier this month Keith Mann was jailed for 14 years for incendiary attacks on an abattoir and a battery hen farm.

A principal objective during 1994 was the cross-Channel traffic in live animals. The shipping company Stena Sealink was the target for a bomb attack by the ALF offshoot, the so-called "Justice Department", and senior ferry executives were under police protection before the trade was halted.

Phoenix Aviation continued the trade by air and was subsequently singled out for protests by animal rights activists. When its Boeing 737, used for carrying live calves, crashed at Coventry before Christmas, there was suspicion of sabotage, although these fears have proved unfounded.

Today we report that the Special Branch now sees "eco-terrorism" as a serious problem. The challenge for the authorities must be to deliver an effective response to physical threats to life and property without creating a "greens under the bed" bogey.

Rising to this challenge is important because the issues in dispute are of popular concern, particularly among young people. Many ordinary law-abiding citizens are bitterly, but peacefully, opposed to practices that are central to modern agriculture and industry. The political process must take account of their protest.

One difficulty is that when concessions to animal rights are made, both the violent and non-violent campaigners claim the credit. For example, the ferry companies have publicly stated that they abandoned their cross-Channel trade in animals because of widespread public concern mobilised legally by groups such as the RSPCA. Yet there were inevitably suspicions that the threat of terrorism also played its part in the decision.

To distinguish between the strands of animal rights protest requires a sophisticated political response. There are real moral problems for an industrial society in its relationship with animals that should not be ignored because of the methods used by some campaigners. Drawing the line between acceptable and unacceptable practices in the care of animals serving human purposes needs more attention in political debate. In the long run this could prove to be the best way to marginalise extremists.