(Reuters) - Police wearing helmets and carrying shields moved to evict protesters with the Occupy Wall Street movement early on Tuesday from the park in New York City's financial district where they have camped since September.
Authorities declared that the continued occupation of Zuccotti Park -- which had become a sea of tents, tarps and protest signs with hundreds of demonstrators sleeping there -- posed a health and safety threat, according to Reuters report.
Scores of police barricaded streets around the park, which had been lit up with spotlights, and were keeping people about a block away. More people were arriving at the scene to support Occupy Wall Street after the protesters sent out a mass text message alerting followers to the raid.
"They gave us about 20 minutes to get our things together," protester Sam Wood said. "It's a painful process to watch, they are sweeping through the park."
The protesters had set up camp in Zuccotti Park on September 17 to protest a financial system they say mostly benefits corporations and the wealthy. Their movement has inspired similar protests against economic inequality in other cities, and in some cases have led to violent clashes with police.
The office of New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg said the protesters should "temporarily leave" the park and remove their tents and tarps.
Police spokesman Paul Browne said the city and the owners of the park, commercial real estate corporation Brookfield Office Properties, issued fliers to the protesters saying the park would be cleared for cleaning shortly after 1 a.m. (0600 GMT).
Browne said 15 people had been arrested for disorderly conduct and resisting arrest.
The flier said the city and Brookfield had decided "that the continued occupation of Zuccotti Park posed an increasing health and safety hazard to those camped in the park, the city's first responders and the surrounding community."
Browne said most people had left peacefully, but there was a small group of people in the middle of the park refusing to leave. He said the protesters can return if they want after the park is cleared but without their tents and belongings.
The protesters had set up a kitchen in the middle of the park and they also had a medical tent, a social media headquarters and a library. Protesters have said several hundred people had been regularly sleeping in the park.
Some protesters said police had used pepper spray while clearing the park and journalists at the scene said they smelled the substance.
Police were using a loudspeaker to tell protesters still at the park that if they did not leave they would be arrested.
Wood, an unemployed 21-year-old from Farmingdale, New York, said he had been living at the park since the protests started on September 17. "They weren't disassembling anything nicely. ... They trashed our library," Wood said.
Wood said there were still about 50 to 80 people in the park, many of whom had linked arms and were sitting around the kitchen area in the middle of the site. He said he saw some people who had chained themselves to trees. Wood said dozens of sanitation workers were helping police clear the park.
Samantha Tuttlebee, 35, from the Brooklyn section of the city, said she was volunteering at the protesters' medical tent when the raid happened. She said she had not been living at the park.
"I'm shocked. They put my arms behind my back. They are really violent," Tuttlebee said. "We were trying to leave and they threw us out."
The protesters issued a statement by e-mail that said, "You can't evict an idea whose time has come."
"Some politicians may physically remove us from public spaces -- our spaces -- and, physically, they may succeed. But we are engaged in a battle over ideas. Our idea is that our political structures should serve us, the people -- all of us, not just those who have amassed great wealth and power," the Occupy Wall Street statement added.
Police on Monday moved into an encampment by anti-Wall Street protesters in Oakland, California, clearing out occupants and taking down tents, while in Portland, Oregon, police confronted an estimated 1,000 protesters on Sunday.
The protesters in Wall Street had said they hoped on Thursday to shut down Wall Street -- home to the New York Stock Exchange -- by holding a street carnival to mark the two-month anniversary of their movement.