Riot police move in on New Zealand anti-vax protest
Hundreds of officers took to Wellington's streets before dawn to clear roads around parliament that have been clogged by protesters' vehicles for more than three weeks.by AFP
WELLINGTON - Riot police clashed with demonstrators outside New Zealand's parliament on Wednesday, using pepper spray and making dozens of arrests as they moved to end a long-running protest against coronavirus restrictions.
Hundreds of officers took to Wellington's streets before dawn to clear roads around parliament that have been clogged by protesters' vehicles for more than three weeks.
Ending a previous light-touch approach, officers with riot shields advanced on protesters yelling "Move! Move!", pulling down tents, and deploying a large forklift to remove cars and campervans to vehicle transporters.
Demonstrators who resisted were pepper-sprayed, and fighting erupted.
Police reported some protesters armed with pitchforks, but said they "gained significant ground" during the operation, which continued into Wednesday afternoon.
"We've seen tactics (from protesters) today including spraying fire extinguishers at the police line, the throwing of paint, early on we saw weapons," commissioner Andrew Coster said.
He said three officers received minor injuries and there were 36 arrests.
The force warned Wellington residents and office workers to steer clear of the area.
'IT NEEDS TO END'
The protest began as a movement against coronavirus vaccine mandates - inspired by similar protests in the Canadian capital Ottawa.
It has grown into a makeshift camp sprawled over the parliamentary lawns, the movement encompassing a range of grievances with some far-right messaging among the anti-government and anti-media slogans on display.
As police faced off against protesters outside the legislature, a man with a loudhailer told them: "We don't want to be genetically engineered!"
Wellington residents have complained about being abused by protesters for wearing masks, while schools and businesses close to the camp have closed for safety reasons.
Police have also warned of unsanitary conditions and the camp has become a COVID-19 hotspot, with numerous cases reported among the largely unmasked demonstrators
At the peak, about 3,000 people were camped outside parliament, but numbers have dwindled to a hard core of about 300 in the past week.
Coster said he was concerned that those who remained had shown a willingness to use violence.
"This has reached a stage where the harm being done far outweighs any legitimate protest," he said.
"There's no interest in anyone here in turning this into a fight, however this protest has now tipped over a balance and it now needs to end."
In recent weeks, police have accused protesters of hurling human faeces at them, spraying a "stinging substance" at officers and slashing tyres on police cars.
The protesters have ignored repeated appeals from Coster and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern to leave.
Prior to Wednesday, police had adopted a hands-off approach, setting up roadblocks to prevent the camp from spreading as they tried to negotiate a peaceful end to the protest.
Parliamentary officials initially tried to clear the grounds by playing pop music and children's song "Baby Shark" on a loop, but stopped after police criticised the tactic.
Coster said efforts to "de-escalate" the situation and end the protest without resorting to force had stalled.
"We reached the stage where protest leaders were unwilling or unable to effect meaningful change," he said.