Devon `moles' dig deep to halt road

 

THEY have been described as human moles. Swampy, Muppet, Dave, Ian and Animal, anti-roads protesters have been living underground in Devon for four days and nights.

Dedicated to stopping the construction of a new bypass, it looks like they won't emerge without a struggle.

Known as the Fairmile Five, they issued a statement of their demands to Britain's Highways Agency, urging it to disclose financial details of a planned 13-mile dual carriageway linking the Honiton by-pass and the MS motorway near Devon. When their demands were dismissed as "totally unacceptable" the Fairmile Five went underground.

"Big Mama" is the name they have given to a series of underground tunnels, some 30 feet deep, which were prepared up to a year ago when plans for the road improvement were first announced. The tunnels have now been condemned by the deputy under-sheriff as "very fragile.

Yesterday morning Animal, a 16-year-old girl from Essex who answers to no other name, was "rescued" from the tunnels. Her fellow protester, known as Welsh John, had earlier emerged from the maze "looking exhausted", onlookers said. He was immediately arrested and given bail on condition that he did not return to the camp.

Meanwhile the stand-off between the protesters, the police and the bailiffs at Fairmile continues in an atmosphere of exasperation. The 150 security guards and 50 police officers can only stand around at the entrance to the tunnels and wait for the protesters to come to the surface, as they will inevitably do, while pot-holers attempt to reinforce the tunnels.

One of the pot-holers described the makeshift tunnel reinforcements as "very poor; the protesters have used rotten timbers. They have done a very bad job indeed." The team, aided by radar to map out the tunnels, have warned the protesters that their lives are in extreme danger due to the weakness of wooden beams in the tunnels.

However, earlier this week after the pot-holers broke through three steel doors erected by the protesters to slow down their advance, the Fairmile Five dug deeper into the earth and disappeared.

The Devon road improvement scheme is near completion and the Fairmile Five protesters are the last of three protest camps already cleared by the bailiffs. The conventional forms of protest may have failed, as one supporter has argued, but it is only a matter of time before the protesters must concede defeat.

Even those who rallied against the Newbury by-pass scheme in Buckinghamshire gave themselves up in 1996 after nearly two years of action; some supporters lived in tree-houses for many months. Their "surrender" was not without a struggle and many of the protesters were arrested, but as a supporter at Fairmile suggested this week the stand-off with the Highways Agency is not over yet. "Where there's a will there's a way," she said.