HONOLULU -- Two men were arrested and a Hawaii state flag was torn Friday when crews and police arrived to a lava field on a Big Island mountain to remove a small wooden house built by demonstrators near the camp where they are blocking construction of a giant telescope, officials said.
Law enforcement officers arrived to clear the area around the structure Friday morning. But the two men refused to leave and were arrested and charged with obstruction of a governmental operation, officials said.
Protesters who oppose the Thirty Meter Telescope planned on Mauna Kea have been camped to block the road to the mountain's summit since July. A "handful of guys" built the house, or hale in Hawaiian, as a learning center for children, said Andre Perez, one of the protest leaders.
"They wanted to create a space for children to congregate, a teaching area," he said, adding that the builders knew it wasn't legal or sanctioned by protest leaders.
The Department of Hawaiian Home Lands, which owns the land, said earlier this week that the unpermitted building would be removed. It needed to be removed because it "presents health, safety and environmental concerns," Gov. David Ige said.
Officers had to cut through a Hawaii flag that was on a barricade over a door to get into the building and see if anyone was inside, said Ed Sniffen, deputy director of the state Department of Transportation's highways division. A second flag on the roof was also removed. Both flags were returned to protesters, Sniffen said.
"There was no way to safely remove it other than to tear it," state Attorney General Clare Connors said of the first flag nailed to a barricade over the door. Workers went to great lengths to carefully saw off a second flag on the roof, she said.
Cutting the flag escalated an already tense situation, Perez said. "They ran a knife right down the middle and cut it," he said. "It wasn't necessary to cut a Hawaiian flag in half."
A loader knocked the structure over, and workers cut up the pieces, Sniffen said.
Big Island Mayor Harry Kim, who has been tasked with leading discussions between various stakeholders, including the group of protesters that are blocking the road to Mauna Kea's summit, said he's pleased with progress being made and believes there is a way for the telescope to be built while still honoring the concerns of Native Hawaiians.
"We're caught between what we have to do by law and truly understanding why the protectors, for lack of a better word, are doing what they feel they have to do," Kim said. "We should all be joining hands, recognizing where we were and recognizing how we go forward."
Associated Press journalist Caleb Jones contributed to this report.