Fires, clashes, arrests mark eviction of NZ parliament occupation
Sydney, Australia, Mar 2 (EFE).- New Zealand Police on Wednesday were evicting anti-vaccine mandate protesters that have occupied the grounds of parliament for 23 days, in an operation marked by clashes, fires and dozens of arrests.
Hundreds of police officers, including riot police, began the operation in central Wellington before dawn and it was ongoing well into the afternoon.
While many campers left peacefully, other demonstrators set objects on fire, including tents and a playground, threw projectiles and clashed with police who fired pepper spray.
“In the last week we have a changing mix in the make-up of the crowd at the protest – in particular we became concerned that those with good intentions were outnumbered by those with a willingness to use violence to effect their means,” Police Commissioner Andrew Coster said in a statement.
“We have observed an escalation in concerning behavior which has resulted in today’s action,” he said, adding “we will continue this operation until it is completed.”
Police cleared structures, tents, gazebos, toilets and towed at least 30 vehicles to regain a large area of the occupation by mid-afternoon.
Some protesters were in possession of fire extinguishers as weapons, as well as “a cord set up as a trip wire, paint-filled projectiles, homemade plywood shields and pitchforks,” police said.
Demonstrators also pointed a laser at a police helicopter, while three officers were slightly injured in the morning, two with abrasions and one with a paint thrown in the face.
At least 38 people have been arrested so far, including for trespass, obstruction, assault, willful damage, possession of a restricted weapon and refusing to provide details, police said.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said at a regular press conference during the day that “it’s time to clear the roads and restore order for Wellingtonians. It will be obvious to those who work in and around parliament that the protest has been at times violent and increasingly fuelled by misinformation and, sadly, conspiracy theories.”
“It has also become a (Covid-19) location of interest. We know Covid has circulated within the protests, and there have been hospitalizations as a result. Whatever point the protesters were making in the beginning was made, but it is time for it to end,” she said.
Inspired by the Canadian “freedom caravan” movement and opposed to vaccination mandates, the occupation of parliament is in its fourth week.
An Omicron outbreak is surging across New Zealand and on Thursday a record high of more than 22,152 new cases (PCR and rapid tests) were announced.
New Zealand, the government of which implemented one of the strictest strategies against Covid-19 in the world with lockdowns over just a few cases and a hard border closure, has accumulated some 124,000 infections and 56 deaths since the start of the pandemic.
About 95 percent of the target population is fully vaccinated.
The government, which was applauded worldwide at the beginning of the pandemic for its management of Covid-19, began the reopening of international borders on Monday but restricted only to New Zealanders and residents. EFE