'Don't tear down this wall', Berlin protesters say

Detested for nearly three decades as a symbol of oppression, the Berlin Wall again sparked angry protests Friday when a crane began dismantling a segment under plans for a new housing development.

Police face protesters with a banner reading 'Does culture still mean anything?' during the removal of a section of the East Side Gallery, a 1.3 km long remnant of the Berlin Wall, for a housing project on February 28, 2013. Demonstrators rallied in front of the Berlin Wall's longest remaining stretch on Friday as a crane dismantled a section of the wall to make way for new flats.

About 200 demonstrators of all ages gathered in front of the Wall's longest remaining stretch where police grimly stood between them and the barrier that once made East Berliners prisoners of their own country.

"Berlin Is Selling Itself and Its History", "Berlin Sell-Out" read some placards, while a protestor poignantly shouted "We want our Wall" -- the paradox of protesting to save the Wall seems not to be lost.

"It's a cultural heritage and the only place in the world besides Israel with a wall dividing people. We should be able to experience that," said Berlin resident Riet Meert, 32, from Belgium, who owns a DJ booking agency.

Protesters argue that especially because of the pain the Wall caused -- dozens died in dramatic attempts to flee the communist state of East Germany -- it should be preserved and not forgotten.

Former US president Ronald Reagan famously implored the Soviet Union's Mikhail Gorbachev to "Tear down this wall!" in a speech at the iconic Brandenburg Gate near the Berlin Wall two years before it fell.

"They're pulling down our history here," 72-year-old former West Berliner Monika Wang complained. Even the bad times must be remembered, she added grumbling that history was being "sacrificed" because Berlin is still cheap for investors.

Thrown up in 1961, the Wall stretched 155 kilometres (96 miles) and divided the city until 1989, but today only around three kilometres of it still stand with the longest stretch running 1.3 kilometres, known as the East Side Gallery.

Since 1990, the outdoor gallery has been covered in brightly coloured graffiti murals, including the famous "Fraternal Kiss" depicting Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev and his East German counterpart Erich Honecker.

The 3.6-metre high (11-foot) stretch is a popular tourist magnet and a must-see for history buffs retracing the dark chapter of the division who are otherwise hard pressed to find remnants of the Wall to photograph.

Between a panel illustrated with Picasso-esque murals and another decorated with colourful handprints, one panel of the Wall is missing and the crane is positioned with its clamp fixed on a second.

When, through a loudspeaker, police announced that work to dismantle the Wall has been immediately stopped for the time being and a workman clambered up to remove the crane's clasp from the wall, a cheer went up from the crowd.

But the mood remains sceptical.

"As soon as the crane comes back we'll also be there. We have enough people to also come straight back," vowed Robert Muschinski, a member of an initiative to save the East Side Gallery, describing the halt as an initial "success".

But he said it would take intervention from local politicians to stop the 22-metre segment of the Wall being torn down under a scheme to create access for a planned bridge and a new 14-storey housing development.

Property developer Living Bauhaus says removing part of the East Side Gallery is necessary for safety reasons. "It has nothing to do with our building but with directives from the local authority," its chief Maik Uwe Hinkel said.

For more than 20 years the area bordering the River Spree has been a prime spot for the development of Berlin's famed party scene, with clubs in former warehouses, bars on barges and beaches with imported sand.

"Where were the building companies 24 years ago? Then they should have torn it down," mutters one protestor.

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Writer: AFP
Position: News agency