(Update 1: Adds details throughout, minor edits, changes lede and headline)
Sydney, Australia, Mar 2 (EFE).- New Zealand Police on Wednesday evicted anti-vaccine mandate protesters who had occupied the grounds of parliament for 23 days, resulting in riots, fires and dozens of arrests.
Photographs and videos circulating on social media as well as local media livestreams of the operation, which began at 6am and was still going more than 12 hours later, showed protesters setting tents, a playground and various objects on fire, and throwing projectiles, including bricks ripped up from the pavement, at police.
Officers used pepper spray, sponge bullets and fire hoses as clashes and chaos spilled out of parliament grounds onto surrounding city streets.
At least 65 people were arrested for a range of offenses including trespass, willful damage and possession of restricted weapons, police said.
The operation, which continued into Wednesday night, although more aimed at keeping stragglers out of parliament grounds after most demonstrators had left, also resulted in three officers being treated in hospital, and the towing of 50 vehicles, while another 30 left voluntarily, according to the police.
Hundreds of police officers, including riot police, began the operation in central Wellington before dawn.
“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 in the morning.
“We have observed an escalation in concerning behavior which has resulted in today’s action,” he said.
Police tore down structures, tents, gazebos and toilets to dismantle the camp, and while many demonstrators left peacefully, others refused to leave, resulting in the violent clashes.
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 early in the day.
Demonstrators also pointed a laser at a police helicopter.
“It was an illegal occupation, they engaged in hostile, violent and aggressive behavior throughout the occupation, and today that has culminated in the desecration of this parliament’s grounds,” Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern told a news conference in Wellington.
She said those throwing projectiles — outside as she spoke — should “put down their weapons long enough for police to arrest them.”
“This is not the way that we engage and protest.”
Hours earlier, Ardern told a regular press conference the camp had also become a Covid-19 hotspot.
“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.”
Inspired by the Canadian “freedom caravan” movement and opposed to vaccination mandates, the occupation of parliament was 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.