Police in the Swiss city of Fribourg have peacefully evicted 21 protesters from a church which had been occupied for 11 weeks in a bid to secure residency rights for illegal immigrants.
The police were called in on the orders of the local prefect, Nicolas Deiss, who had issued an ultimatum to the protesters on Thursday in which he ordered them to vacate the church by 11am on Friday or risk being evicted by the authorities.
Officers eventually moved into the church at 3am on Saturday. The 21 protesters inside the building formed a human chain but made no other effort to resist being evicted.
The eviction took 30 minutes and the protesters were taken to a police station where their identities were checked. They were all found to be supporters of the illegal immigrants who had been holed up in the church for more than two months.
Jean Kunz, a member of the movement backing the Fribourg collective, strongly criticised the timing of the eviction. "This just shows how brave the authorities are," he said. "They didn't dare to move in during the day with journalists present."
Kunz confirmed that at the time of the eviction no illegal immigrants were in the church. He said they had all been moved out prior to the police action.
By Friday morning, after it became clear that the protesters would not be leaving the church of their own accord, Deiss appeared at the church accompanied by the chief of police and four officers to announce that he had handed over authority to the police to begin an "evacuation operation".
Gäetan Zurkinden, a coordinator of the movement backing the Fribourg collective, had told swissinfo Thursday afternoon that the group had no intention of leaving.
"We will continue the occupation of the church and we are now preparing the mobilisation of our supporters," Zurkinden said at the time.
Some 30 of the 84 demonstrators moved on Friday evening from the church to a contemporary arts centre, Fri-Art, located at the bottom of the town, supporters of the protesters said.
The Association Against Racism in French-speaking Switzerland has called on the authorities not to deport the immigrants.
Earlier on Thursday, the canton of Fribourg had refused to offer blanket amnesty to the protesters. The justice minister, Ruth Metzler, had said a difficult situation did not give automatic right to residency.
However, this did not mean that the government lacked humanity, she added. Metzler had emphasised that the cantons were responsible for applying the law and threw the political hot potato back to them.
The cantonal government of Fribourg had asked the federal government to find a collective solution for a total of 36 immigrants, 21 of whom were among the group of foreigners who had made Saint-Paul's church their home for over two months.
The head of the cantonal government, Claude Grandjean, had assured the public earlier in the week that there would not be any "human hunting".
The 36 immigrants who might be given the right to stay in Switzerland were selected according to criteria worked out by the canton of Fribourg and the federal government. Many are hardship cases, or people who have lived in Switzerland for many years and are well integrated.
swissinfo with agencies