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Police take down Occupy LA camp, arrest nearly 300

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Police in riot gear and biohazard suits removed anti-Wall Street activists from their camp at Los Angeles City Hall on Wednesday, arresting nearly 300 people and fencing off the area.

A woman makes a peace gesture during a police raid of the Occupy Los Angeles encampment at City Hall Park in Los Angeles, California November 30, 2011. REUTERS/David McNew

On the East Coast, about 100 Occupy protesters in Philadelphia swiftly and peacefully vacated their encampment overnight, but police later arrested 52 around the city on charges ranging from obstructing a highway to assaulting a police officer, officials said.

In Los Angeles, some 1,400 police officers brought in on buses surrounded the Occupy LA camp after midnight and declared protesters congregated on the lawn, sidewalks and streets around City Hall to be an unlawful assembly, ordering them to disperse or face arrest in line with an eviction order from the mayor.

The Los Angeles encampment, which officials had allowed to remain even as other cities moved in to clear out similar compounds, had been among the largest on the West Coast aligned with a 2-month-old Occupy Wall Street movement against economic inequality and alleged excesses of the U.S. financial system.

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa had originally welcomed the protesters, even supplying them with ponchos for rainy weather. But as city officials complained of crime, sanitation problems and property damage he decided the group had to go.

Villaraigosa initially set an eviction deadline for 12:01 a.m. Monday but city officials held off on enforcing it for 48 hours in the hope protesters would drift away on their own.

The strategy appeared to pay off, with police avoiding the use of tear gas or pepper spray that marked evictions of protesters in Oakland and other cities. Aside from minor initial scuffles, the crowd was boisterous but mostly peaceful and the bulk of the operation was done before dawn.

“I couldn’t be prouder of what I believe is maybe the finest moment in the history of the Los Angeles Police Department,” Villaraigosa told reporters. He said there were no major injuries to police or protesters.

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Police swept into the park overnight as the raid began in earnest, arresting anyone who refused to leave and dismantling the camp. Tents were pulled down and flattened after police peeked inside each one with a flashlight.

Some protesters took refuge in tree houses but were ultimately removed by officers using platform lifts. Once the park was cleared of stragglers, workers erected fences and said they would rehabilitate debris-strewn grounds whose landscaping was ravaged by campers.

Los Angeles police Sergeant Mitzi Fierro said 292 people were arrested, all but two of those for failure to disperse. One person was arrested for interfering with police and another accused of battery on an officer.

Lieutenant Andy Neiman said before the operation that some protesters had been reported to be storing human waste at the site for unknown reasons. He later said police entering the camp had encountered “a horrible stench.”

Fireworks were set off as the crowd grew steadily more raucous before police arrived. Many protesters chanted, “Move your feet, Occupy the street!”

Protester Anthony Candelaria, 21, a Los Angeles college student among the crowd gathered at City Hall, said before the raid began that he planned to “hold the fort down until they drag us out by our feet.”

In Philadelphia, demonstrators left their camp in a plaza outside City Hall without incident shortly after 1 a.m., but confrontations erupted a short time later at four different locations and resulted in arrests.

Philadelphia police said 52 people were arrested on various charges including obstructing a highway, conspiracy and failure to disperse at a busy intersection. One person was charged with aggravated assault on a police officer.

In San Francisco, Mayor Ed Lee has offered anti-Wall Street activists occupying a park in the city’s financial district an alternate location for their camp. But the group ultimately rejected the offer, which had included land for pitching tents and a building with restrooms.

The mayor has promised to find a shelter for homeless people who had taken up residence at City Hall and were estimated to account for at least a third of the camp.

Additional reporting by Dave Warner in Philadelphia and Alex Dobuzinskis in Los Angles; Writing by Steve Gorman and Barbara Goldberg; Editing by Bill Trott, Jerry Norton and Cynthia Johnston