Italian police disrupt protest to prevent olive grove removal

((This March 28 story has been refiled to add missing word ‘to’ in first paragraph))

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BARI/MILAN (Reuters) - Italian police broke up a protest by environmentalists trying to prevent the removal of a grove of olive trees dating back centuries standing in the way of a $40 billion pipeline to bring Asian gas to Europe.

The trees, including some more than 100 years old, are in the path of the Trans Adriatic Pipeline (TAP), the final stage of the so-called southern gas corridor designed to reduce the European Union’s dependence on Russian energy.

On Monday, a top Italian court gave the go-ahead to start work on TAP, rejecting appeals by local authorities in the southern Puglia region who wanted to move the landfall.

On Tuesday, protesters laid down outside the work site to block the arrival of trucks and tractors, police officials said, and in the afternoon police dispersed about 50 people, including the mayors of some of the towns in the area.

Police also broke up a cordon of about 300 protesters.

TAP will bring 10 billion cubic meters of gas from Azerbaijan into the small Puglia seaside town of San Foca by 2020. It is seen by Brussels as a priority project to wean Europe off Russian gas dependence.

TAP developers had hoped to begin moving the first of roughly 10,000 trees almost a year ago, but opposition by the local town council, Puglia regional authority and environmentalist has delayed the process.

A TAP spokesman said around 30 olive trees were removed on Tuesday, and the aim was to speed up the process if the protests did not escalate. Last week developers removed 33 trees, but were forced to stop due to the protests.

If the trees are not shifted by April, when they go through a six-month growth spurt and cannot be moved, the TAP consortium must wait until late November to complete the removals.

Writing by Stephen Jewkes and Oleg Vukmanovic in Milan, editing by Susan Thomas