BERLIN (AP) — Work crews backed by about 250 police removed parts of the Berlin Wall known as the East Side Gallery before dawn Wednesday to make way for an upscale building project, despite demands by protesters that the site be preserved.
Residents of the area expressed shock at the move, which followed several protests including one attended by American celebrity David Hasselhoff.
Police spokesman Alexander Toennies said there were no incidents as work began about 5 a.m. to remove four sections of the wall, each about 1.5 yards (1.2 meters) wide. That will make way for an access route to the planned high-rise luxury apartments along the nearby Spree River.
The East Side Gallery is the longest remaining stretch of the Berlin Wall. Construction workers removed a first piece earlier this month as part of a plan to make a road to a new luxury apartment complex . The public outcry brought a halt while local politicians and the investor said they were looking for a solution to keep the rest of the wall untouched.
The investor, Maik Uwe Hinkel, decided to remove four more 1.5-yard (1.2-meter) wide parts of the wall, according to Toennies.
"The constructor had the right to do this and he informed us a few days ago about his plans. Last night we were told that he wanted to remove the wall pieces early this morning," Toennies said.
Plans to remove part of the 1.3-kilometer (3/4-mile) stretch of wall sparked protests whose main message was that developers were sacrificing history for profit.
At least 136 people died trying to scale the wall that divided communist-run East Berlin from West Berlin. Over the years, the stretch has become a tourist attraction with colorful paintings decorating the old concrete tiles.
"I can't believe they came here in the dark in such a sneaky manner," said Kani Alavi, the head of the East Side Gallery's artists' group. "All they see is their money, they have no understanding for the historic relevance and art of this place."
By mid-morning the six-yard (meter) gap was covered by a wooden fence and protected by scores of police. Passers-by and a handful of protesters stared in disbelief.
"If you take these parts of the Wall away, you take away the soul of the city," said Ivan McClostney, 32, who moved here a year ago from Ireland. "This way, you make it like every other city. It's so sad."
In an emailed statement, Hinkel said the removal of parts of the wall was a temporary move to enable trucks to access the building site. He said after four weeks of fruitless negotiations with city officials and owners of adjacent property he was no longer willing to wait.
The East Side Gallery was recently restored at a cost of more than 2 million euros ($3 million) to the city. The wall section stood on the eastern side of the elaborate border strip built by communist East Germany after it sealed off West Berlin in 1961. At least 136 people died trying to scale the wall until it was opened on Nov. 9, 1989.
The stretch of wall was transformed into an open-air gallery months after the opening and is now covered in colorful murals painted by about 120 artists. They include the famous image of boxy East German Trabant car that appears to burst through the wall; and a fraternal communist kiss between Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev and East German boss Erich Honecker.