Plumes of tear gas as French police crack down on environmental squatters (VIDEO)

Molotov cocktails and stun grenades flew through clouds of tear gas as illegal occupants of the ZAD anarchist commune in western France clashed with police. Some 2,500 officers moved in to evict the camp.

RT’s Charlotte Dubenskij, reporting from the thick of the action, said at times it felt like the “sky was raining tear gas.” She said that crowds were caught in clouds of the gas. 

Law enforcement officials were mobilized for evictions in an area known as the ZAD. Up to several hundred activists have occupied the 1,650-hectare site, once reserved for a proposed airport near the western city of Nantes, calling it their "Zone a Defendre" (Zone to be Defended).

Police blocked off access to the local main road at 3.30am on Monday, ahead of the operation's 6.00am start. They "conducted a law enforcement mission overnight on departmental route 281, where the illegal occupants had set up barricades and had set fire to them," the Interior Ministry said in a statement.

"These expulsions are illegal," one protester, known as Camille, told AFP. "It is unacceptable that the state is driving people out of their homes. We call on everyone to resist and support us, and to join local [protest] gatherings. We were in the framework of peaceful negotiation with the prefecture in search for collective solutions."

But the ministry maintains that the authorities are acting upon "court decisions" designed "to proceed with the eviction of the most radical of the occupants. "This is [meant] to end the illegal occupation," Interior Minister Gérard Collomb tweeted on Monday.

Pays-de-la-Loire regional prefect Nicole Klein announced later on Monday that "the goal was almost accomplished," adding that the operation would continue "this afternoon and tomorrow in the same form: expulsions, demolitions, relocation." She said that "the barricades will be cleared, [and] gendarmes will remain on site to prevent reconstruction.” 

The operation aimed to dislodge "about a hundred" people and will be maintained for "as long as it is necessary" to prevent new occupants from moving in, Collomb said in an interview with Europe 1, adding that "about 40 buildings" must be dismantled. 

Environmental activists and campaigners have protested against construction of the airport near  Nantes since 2008. Supporters of the project argued it would boost economic development in the region, while opponents said it was too environmentally unfriendly, noting that there was another airport close by.

After years of debate, French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe announced in January this year that France would abandon the airport project. "This is the logical decision given the dead-end in which this project has found itself," Philippe stated. He told activists squatting on the site to leave before March 30 or face expulsion.

"Our struggle does not end at the airport," one of the activists told Le Parisien in January. "We want to recover these lands and take care of them so that they do not come to be used for traditional farming."

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