Government denies suspension of German rail project

BERLIN — Construction work on a contentious rail project in the German city of Stuttgart would continue despite a mediator’s comments that all work would halt until December, the regional government said Thursday.

A mediator appointed by the state government of Baden-Wuerttemberg earlier Thursday said that all work on the project would be suspended until December to allow for further consultation with opponents, who have been involved in protests that turned violent, clashing with police.

But the regional government denied that construction would stop, saying the suspension was limited to some tree-clearing in the city centre and demolition of parts of Stuttgart’s station.

“There is no question of a general stopping of work,” said a government spokesman.

Mediator Heiner Geissler, a member of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU), had been “misunderstood”, said the spokesman.

Geissler earlier said that “no irreversable act” would be taken until more discussions took place.

Opponents had demanded a complete freeze of building work before agreeing to further talks, which would begin by the end of next week with the aim of concluding them “before Christmas”, Geissler said.

The mediator also said the suspension of the project was approved by German rail company Deutsche Bahn and the conservative head of the Baden-Wuerttemberg state government, Stefan Mappus, a Merkel ally.

However, Deutsche Bahn chairman Rudiger Grube told Stuttgarter Nachrichten newspaper: “We know nothing about work stopping.”

The government spokesman reiterated an announcement made by the regional government on Tuesday, which said tree-cutting and demolition of parts of the station was temporarily suspended, but building work would continue.

The seven-billion-euro (9.6-billion-dollar) plan to modernise southwestern Germany’s rail network has prompted mass protests in recent months, culminating in heavy clashes last Thursday that left more than 100 people injured.

Opponents say that a majority of people are against the project, dubbed “Stuttgart 21”, which they claim will be late, much more expensive than planned, potentially dangerous and will do little or nothing to speed up rail traffic.

In particular, people in Stuttgart object to the partial destruction of the historic, interwar station and the felling of hundreds of trees in the city centre.

The project is set to become a major issue in elections in Baden-Wuerttemberg in March, after which the conservatives could find themselves out of the state government for the first time since 1952.

Authorities were heavily criticised for their handling of last Thursday’s protests, which saw riot police use water cannons, tear gas and batons to disperse protestors, some of them teenagers.

Police at first accused protestors of lobbing bottles but then retracted this, saying only chestnuts had been thrown.

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