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Polish police break up protest against Bialowieza forest logging

Polish police have detained several eco-activists staging a sit-in at Poland's forest management agency, some of whom chained themselves to a gate. They were protesting logging in the UNESCO-protected Bialowieza forest.

A police spokeswoman said on Thursday that police had detained 22 people "for disturbing the peace" at the headquarters of Poland's forest management agency, with police at times using force to remove the up to 50 protestors. 

Watch video 03:18

#SaveBialowieza forest in Poland

"We're calling for the withdrawal of heavy machinery from the Bialowieza forest. We demand an end to the logging," said Adam Bohdan, one of the activists who chained himself to a security gate inside the agency building.

"All of our activity — peaceful marches, petitions, blockades at the scene — have had no effect. Forest management continues to fell trees despite the decision of the European judiciary. And so we opted for this ultimate form of protest," he told the French news agency AFP.

Many believe the move to open up logging in the Bialowieza forest is a show of strength by the nationalistic Law and Justice (PiS) government, intent on showing the EU, which has accused the government of undermining democracy in the last two years, that it has the power to do what it wishes with its own land.

Forest management spokeswoman Anna Malinowska described the protest organized by the "Oboz dla Puszczy" (Camp for the Forest) environmental coalition as "illegal."

The activists could face penalties ranging from fines to up to a year behind bars.

Police officers intervene while the ecologists take part in a protest against the logging in the Bialowieza Forest (picture-alliance/PAP/R. Guz)

Some of the activists chained themselves to a security gate in the agency's building, saying that their previous efforts 'had no effect'

Critics want end to logging

Scientists, ecologists and the EU have protested the action. Activists have said Warsaw is defying a European Court of Justice injunction to suspend logging in the forest.

The government has been accused by the European Commission of logging trees that are 100 years and older, an act which is illegal under EU law.

Forest patrols by Greenpeace Poland in August found evidence of loggers violating the EU Court's decision in 16 of 30 forest areas.

Bialowieza includes one of the largest surviving parts of a primeval forest that covered most of the European plain about 10,000 years ago. The woodland, which straddles Poland's border with Belarus, is home to unique plant and animal life, including 800 European bison, the continent's largest mammal.

Watch video 01:15

Beetles and protests in Bialowieza Forest

Government defends actions

The government began logging in May last year, saying it was clearing dead trees to contain damage caused by a spruce bark beetle infestation. It also justified its move saying it was combatting the risk of forest fires.

This saw the limit raised from 63,000 cubic meters (26.7 million board feet) to 188,00 cubic meters, with about 80,000 cubic meters estimated to have been cleared since the limit was increased.

In September, the European Commission asked the ECJ to fine Poland for violating a ban on logging in the forest.

In recent weeks, the Polish government has accused the Commission of "spreading lies" and "manipulating the facts."

The Polish Environment Ministry said it was not in violation of an EU order as it is only felling trees for public safety reasons.

Environment Minister Jan Szyszko told a parliamentary hearing in September that logging was only to save the forest from a major beetle outbreak and that it respected EU laws.

He said logging was taking place only in regular parts of the forest, not in the protected national park.

Watch video 04:54

The Fight for Europe's Last Primeval Forest

jbh/sms (AFP, Reuters)

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