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By Agnieszka Barteczko

WARSAW (Reuters) - Activists climbed trees and blocked felling machines in Poland's primeval Bialowieza Forest on Tuesday in a bid to stop what they say is an illegal logging operation authorised by the government.

The campaigners accuse Warsaw of ignoring EU orders to protect one of Europe's last ancient woodlands - part of a wider clash between the bloc and its biggest eastern member.

Poland's environment minister, Jan Szyszko, has dismissed the orders and the activists' allegations, saying the work is limited and only meant to control a beetle outbreak and remove weak, unsafe trunks.

Campaigners said they had seen evidence of commercial logging operations, threatening the habitat of the European bison, lynx and rare birds in a UNESCO World Heritage site.

"Activists from all over Europe came to protest against the destruction of our joint heritage and to demand its protection," Greenpeace official Robert Cyglicki said.

He said Tuesday's protest was the biggest in the forest since Poland authorised an increase in felling in 2016.

Poland's ruling nationalist and eurosceptic Law and Justice party (PiS) has repeatedly clashed with EU officials since coming to power in 2015.

Activists and opposition politicians have accused the government of moving towards authoritarian rule by tightening control over courts and prosecutors, as well as state media.

PiS says the criticism is unacceptable foreign meddling.

(Reporting by Agnieszka Barteczko; Editing by Andrew Heavens)

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Reuters