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Scaled back recovery prompts scuffle between police, firefighters

NEW YORK (CNN) -- A protest by New York firefighters rallying against the city's scaled-back World Trade Center recovery effort turned violent Friday, resulting in injuries to five police officers and the arrest of a dozen demonstrators.

Several protesting firefighters "flipped over" barricades near Ground Zero in lower Manhattan and punched police officers, Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik said.

Eleven active firefighters, including two representatives of the union that organized the rally, were among 12 people arrested. They will face charges ranging from resisting arrest and disorderly conduct to assault, Kerik said.

"The part I will not tolerate is people violating the law, whether you are the mayor, a policeman, fireman or ordinary citizen. You don't get to punch New York City police officers," said Mayor Rudy Giuliani. "For that you go to jail."

All those arrested would be held in custody while police officials review videotape of the event, Kerik said. Additional arrests are possible, he said.

Hundreds lost, few found

The fracas underscored how deeply firefighters feel about their lost colleagues. Some 343 firefighters are thought to have died in the September 11 attack, although only 12 of their bodies have been recovered. As of Friday, 3,923 presumed victims were missing and another 547 were confirmed dead.

Hundreds of firefighters took part in Friday's rally, which the Uniformed Firefighters Association organized to protest Giuliani's decision to reduce the number of firefighters assisting in the recovery to 24, down from 300 three weeks ago.

UFA officials said the scale-back was economically motivated, and means "all debris, including remains, would be shipped to the Fresh Kills Landfill." City officials said safety concerns prompted the move, with Giuliani citing several near misses and calling the scene a disaster waiting to happen.

"There (are) tons of debris down there, the likes of which have never been seen," said Fire Chief Brian Dixon. "To maintain safety, we needed to limit the number of firefighters working on the site."

Roughly 100 uniformed personnel, including firefighters and city and Port Authority police, are still working on the site. Heavy-equipment operators Friday dug through below-ground staircases where experts believe large numbers of victims may have been trapped.

Ground Zero staffing is a very emotional issue, Dixon admitted, but he criticized union statements that the scaled-back meant less respect for victims.

"Recovery teams treat the victims with respect," he said. "We halt operations, drape them with an American flag, and give them the dignity they deserve. We will continue to do so, and have enough personnel on site to assist."

Fire Comissioner Thomas Von Essen apologized on behalf of his department to the police officers injured in the scuffle Friday. Firefighters and police "have been brothers in this tragedy from day 1," he said.


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