Breaking Camp at Greenham: Britain ends a protest over missile deployment

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Britain ends a protest as The Netherlands hesitates over missiles

At the first light of a chilly dawn, 350 British police and bailiffs converged on the main gate of the Royal Air Force base at Greenham Common. For nearly three years, a ragtag band of women demonstrators had captured headlines round the world by camping just outside the gate to protest the deployment inside of 96 nuclear-tipped, U.S.-made cruise missiles. Now, however, the women were being forced to break camp: 50-odd sleepy inhabitants were given five minutes to vacate their garbage-strewn campsite. As they reluctantly departed—some jeering, some in tears—police demolished the main camp as well as smaller ones around the base.

The destruction of the Greenham camps, carried out by local authorities with the blessing of the government of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, came at a time of rising tensions in Britain and The Netherlands over plans by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to continue deploying medium-range Pershing II and cruise missiles in Western Europe. The only other encouraging sign of Western resolve last week came in Italy, where Defense Minister Giovanni Spadolini announced that the first 16 cruise missiles at Comiso in Sicily were operational.

In The Netherlands, the government of Christian Democratic Premier Ruud Lubbers faced rising opposition to the scheduled stationing of 48 cruises on Dutch soil by the end of 1986. For the first time, politicians were predicting that when the deployment plan comes up for parliamentary approval in June, Lubbers will almost certainly fall short of the required majority. Influential peace groups, including the Inter-Church Peace Council, have united to mobilize public opinion against deployment. According to opinion polls, 63% of Sthe Dutch people are opposed to deployment. Taking note of the strong opposition, a senior U.S. official recently warned that a Dutch decision against deployment could be "a severe, possibly fatal blow" to the resumption of U.S.-Soviet arms talks.

In Britain, the Greenham raid put an end, for the moment, to Western Europe's longest-running antimissile demonstration. Since the summer of 1981, when 50 pacifist women marched to Greenham Common from Wales, the encampment has attracted female protesters from all over Western Europe and the U.S. More than 1,200 protesters have been arrested (average fine: $30) and scores jailed, mostly for obstructing military vehicles and damaging government property.

Though some local residents were sympathetic with the group's aims, many found the camp an eyesore. A newly formed citizens' organization called on the government to throw out the protesters. The Department of Transport obtained a court order to evict the women to make way for a road-widening project. An Initial attempt to remove the demonstrators early last week was foiled as police came head to head with more than 200 angry women in full view of television and newspaper journalists.

The Greenham women insisted that they would return, and that the public supports their antinuclear cause. Indeed, polls indicate that half of all Britons still oppose U.S. cruise missiles on British soil. At week's end groups of women had returned to the perimeter of the airbase with their sleeping bags and provisions. —By Russ Hoyle. Reported by Who Vandelinde/Amsterdam and Arthur White/London