The standoff at the German coal mine escalates as police close in on protesters


German police have begun removing climate protesters from an abandoned village in a confrontation over a coal mine expansion.

On Wednesday morning, officers in riot gear moved into Luetzerath, where hundreds of activists have holed up to stop the expansion of energy company RWE’s nearby Garzweiler coal mine.

Activists have spent the past two years trying to protect the village from bulldozing to make way for the opencast lignite mine, in a stalemate that highlights tensions over Germany’s climate policy.

Environmentalists say bulldozing Luetzerath would lead to huge amounts of greenhouse gases, but the government and RWE say coal is needed to ensure Germany’s energy security.

The protesters on Wednesday formed human chains, made a makeshift barricade out of old containers and chanted: “We are here, we are loud, because you are stealing our future”.

Some protesters threw beer bottles at police. Officers said Molotov cocktails and stones were also hurled at them.

Al Jazeera’s Step Vaessen, reporting from Luetzerath, said protesters were “steadfast”.

“[Police] are in the streets, where the few houses of Luetzerath that are still standing are still standing,” she said. “Village residents left a while ago, but the village has been occupied by climate activists for the past two years.”

Luetzerath has become “an international symbol for the fight against climate change” as dozens of villages have been destroyed over the years to make way for this mine, she said.

“Now Luetzerath has to go too, that’s the decision of the government.”

‘We are here and we will stay’

Two days earlier, a regional court upheld an earlier ruling to clear the village, which is located in the lignite district of the western state of North Rhine-Westphalia.

RWE, the company that owns the village’s land and houses, said on Wednesday it would begin demolishing the remaining buildings.

“RWE appeals to squatters to respect the rule of law and to peacefully end the illegal occupation of RWE buildings, factories and land,” it said in a statement.

“No one should endanger their own health and life by participating in illegal activities.”

The flashpoint over the planned expansion of the Garzweiler mine highlights growing tensions over German climate policy [Thilo Schmuelgen/Reuters]

Dina Hamid, who is protesting in Luetzerath, said the protesters are “willing to stay” despite the police presence.

“We are squatting in all the different buildings in Luetzerath and we are staying here because there is still 280 million tons of coal to extract from the Garzweiler mine,” said Hamid.

“We can’t stand that. We can’t stand people dying from the climate crisis right now, that’s why we’re here and we’ll stay.”

Rising tensions over climate policy

Environmentalists say Germany’s climate policy has taken a back seat as Europe grapples with an energy crisis, partly triggered by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

For many European countries, the crisis is forcing a return to polluting fuels.

This is particularly sensitive for the Greens, a party now back in power as part of Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s coalition government after 16 years in opposition until 2021.

The consequences of the Russian offensive prompted the Scholz government to change previous policies.

Germany is now mothballing coal plants and extending the life of nuclear plants after Russia cut off gas supplies to Europe in an energy deadlock that sent prices soaring.

However, the government has brought forward the date of closing all lignite plants in North Rhine-Westphalia to 2030 from 2038, a campaign promise by the Greens.

According to RWE, the Garzweiler mine extracts around 25 million tonnes of lignite annually. The company has said it will support the energy transition and a temporary increase in the use of lignite power stations to help Germany through the energy crisis.

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