By Robert-Jan Bartunek and Agnieszka Barteczko
BRUSSELS/WARSAW (Reuters) - The European Commission is seeking a court order to force Poland to stop felling trees in a protected ancient forest, it said on Thursday, escalating one of several disputes with Warsaw's eurosceptic government.
Bialowieza Forest, on the border with Belarus, is one of the last and largest remaining areas of the primeval forest that once covered much of Europe. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site and is protected under the EU Natura 2000 programme.
Tripling the quota of wood that can be harvested in one of the three forest units there, Polish Environment Minister Jan Szyszko has argued that logging is needed to protect the woods against beetles, but the Commission says it threatens endangered species and habitats.
"As logging operations have started on a significant scale, the Commission is ... requesting the Court for interim measures compelling Poland to suspend the works immediately," the EU executive said in a statement announcing its action at the European Court of Justice.
The Polish environment ministry said it would prove its case in court.
"We are glad that the case will be taken to the tribunal, because we will now be able to present undisputed documents which justify the steps we have taken in the Bialowieza Forest," the ministry said, according to state-run news agency PAP.
Environment Minister Szyszko, a hunter who is backed by powerful forester and hunter lobbies, has said local communities need logging to protect the forest and their livelihoods, and has accused media with "leftist and liberal leanings" of stirring undue international concern.
"I firmly object to insults directed against Poland and the Poles," Szyszko said in a statement this week.
It usually takes the European Court of Justice around two weeks to decide on interim measures, lawyers said. But as the court's summer holiday on starts on July 21, the ruling might not be taken before September.
"The decision on interim measures cannot be appealed. The Polish government will have to conform to it," said Agata Szafraniuk, a lawyer at environmental group ClientEarth.
The Commission launched proceedings against Poland last month over its refusal to take in asylum seekers who come ashore in Italy and Greece and is also demanding changes to Polish legislation which Brussels says harms democratic institutions.
(Editing by Foo Yun Chee and Robin Pomeroy)