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'Generation climate' to occupy huge German coal mine

Protesters will try to evade police lines and disrupt monster digging machines at the Garzweiler open-pit coal mine
Protesters will try to evade police lines and disrupt monster digging machines at the Garzweiler open-pit coal mine AFP/File
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Berlin (AFP)

Thousands of European environmental activists are readying to blockade a huge open-pit coal mine in Germany, backed for the first time by the student climate movement launched by Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg.

Protesters in their trademark white overalls will from Friday try to evade police lines and halt the monster machines digging through the moonscape of the 48 square kilometre (18 square mile) Garzweiler mine near Cologne.

The sixth protest of its kind, from Thursday to Monday, comes after Greens parties made strong gains in European Parliament elections and in Germany are for the first time polling neck-and-neck with Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives.

As in years past, the "Ende Gelaende" (EG) movement will try to blockade and occupy operations in one of energy giant RWE's huge lignite pits, the new ground zero in an intensifying environmental battle.

"Climate change is the biggest problem the world faces," one of the protest organisers, Tadzio Mueller, told AFP. "Climate change is caused by fossil fuels, and lignite is the dirtiest of all the fossil fuels."

He added: "We need to stop burning fossil fuels, and that is exactly what we are trying to enforce, and we will blockade pits, and these diabolical machines, with our own bodies to show that we have to stop this."

- Fridays for Future -

Germany, Europe's biggest economy, has promoted clean renewables such as solar and wind and is phasing out nuclear power -- but it is still missing its climate goals because of its huge reliance on coal that it sources from enormous open-pit mines.

In the Rhineland coalfield region, RWE operates three huge open-cast mines and three power plants which are among Europe's dirtiest.

Merkel's government has pledged to phase out coal by 2038 -- a time horizon the protest movement rejects as far too long as global warming is melting ice caps and glaciers, raising ocean levels and exacerbating extreme weather events.

A year ago protesters on the ground and in the courts scored a victory by halting the destruction of the small Hambach forest adjoining a nearby RWE mine, where dozens of full-time activists long lived in tree houses.

This year, the demonstrators on Monday started setting up their camp with tents and hammocks in the town of Viersen, near the mining site, to accommodate some 6,000 people from as far away as Warsaw, Paris and Madrid.

For the first time, the EG will have at least the moral support of the Fridays for Future school-strike movement launched by 16-year-old activist Thunberg.

Some 20,000 school and university students are expected to converge on the nearby city of Aachen for a major demonstration Friday, to be followed by a day of support Saturday for those planning to occupy the mine area.

- 'Frustration will grow' -

While schoolchildren are not expected to join civil disobedience actions and tense confrontations with riot police, many are expected to support the protesters "behind the lines".

"The idea is not that a minor should end up in police custody," said Helena Marschall, 16, co-leader of Fridays for Future in Frankfurt. "There are many ways to participate -- cook, help in the camp -- and that's just as important."

Marschall lamented that, even as climate policy has shot to the top of the political agenda, "we are still being underestimated by politicians and in public discourse. We are still being belittled."

"If there is no reaction from politicians... then the frustration will grow," she said, days after dozens of Extinction Rebellion activists chained themselves to Merkel's chancellery building.

"I can see people growing impatient," she said. "At Fridays for Future demos I have noticed that people are much readier to blockade an intersection than they were a few months ago."

Local police have for weeks written to local high schools trying to dissuade young people from joining their more radical elders.

But given the scale of the mobilisation, Aachen police chief Dirk Weinspach acknowledged that, while police will try to prevent entry into the mine, "there are points which we will not be able to cover".

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