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Campaigners set up camp in London's Parliament Square

19 May 10 12:41 GMT

By Andy Dangerfield and Rienkje Attoh
BBC News, London

London's Parliament Square, home to the statues of Nelson Mandela and Winston Churchill, is a popular attraction for visitors to the capital.

Tourists gather to enjoy the sights and take photos of the Gothic towers of the Houses of Parliament and Westminster Abbey.

But, over the past two weeks, its green and pristine lawns have steadily been transformed with a sea of peace protesters' tents and flags into what has been dubbed Democracy Village.

The square has become more akin to a field at the Glastonbury Festival than the political centre of the UK.

Among those taking part in what is an illegal protest are anti-war demonstrators, climate change activists, communists and anarchists, who have been joined by homeless people.

And as parts of the turf have been removed to make way for a vegetable patch, the campaigners appear to have no plans to leave in the near future.

'Comfort zone'

However, pressure to remove them is increasing ahead of the state opening of Parliament, which takes place on 25 May.

And the Greater London Authority (GLA), which owns the land, says it is "increasingly concerned by the ongoing mess and chaos".

Phoenix, an environmental activist who claims he has been helping to keep the square tidy, said: "Everyone is welcome from all different walks of life."

He said the "village has no main organiser," but claims the people who camp there meet regularly.

"We have a morning meeting and an evening meeting consensus-making circle, which takes into account the voices of everyone who comes."

However the protesters have been receiving support from some tourists.

"It's good they're standing up for what they believe," said Jasper, from the Netherlands.

"They have their rights and I think people should listen to them."

'Circus tents'

One campaigner who has become accustomed to different groups coming and going from Parliament Square is anti-war protester Brian Haw.

Mr Haw, from Redditch, Worcestershire, has camped in the square opposite the Houses of Parliament since 2001.

But he has dismissed his new neighbours as "circus tents" and "paraphernalia".

"I didn't come here in 2001 to talk about all of this," he said.

In 2007 it was made illegal to hold an unauthorised protest within a square mile of Parliament, although Mr Haw fought successfully to be allowed to continue his demonstration.

Westminster City Council has warned the square is becoming a "no-go area" for Londoners and visitors.

"The city council wants to see the square policed for all," said Dr Leith Penny, from Westminster City Council.

"We'll back legitimate protest, but not when it becomes permanent."

But the Metropolitan Police (Met) has said any decision on removing the protesters was "not a matter for the police but a matter for the landowner".

Parliament Square is owned by the GLA, which is responsible for taking action.

A GLA spokesperson said London mayor Boris Johnson "recognises the traditional and cherished British right to free speech and peaceful protest".

But he said the GLA was becoming increasingly concerned and "examining the options available to us closely and urgently".

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