WELLINGTON, New Zealand — New Zealand police launched a renewed push on Wednesday to end an anti-vaccine mandate protest that has disrupted the country’s capital for the past three weeks, dismantling an encampment set up outside Parliament and towing away vehicles.
A fire broke out among some tents, sending smoke billowing over the site before it was used by police, a Reuters witness said, as officers worked to completely clear the grounds.
“Those protesters illegally occupying Parliament grounds and surrounding streets have been given ample opportunity to leave. It is time for them to go,” Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said at a news conference after a police action earlier on Wednesday.
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Taking inspiration from truckers’ demonstrations in Canada, hundreds of protesters have been blocking streets with trucks, cars and motorcycles, in a protest that has led to violent clashes.
Police said earlier that 60 people were arrested and they had “gained significant ground” in their initial effort to clear the protesters. At least three officers were injured, police said.
Protesters used fire extinguishers, paint-filled projectiles, homemade plywood shields and pitchforks as weapons and a cord was set up as a trip wire, police said. Social media footage showed protesters throwing full water bottles and shouting abuse at the police.
Authorities used loudspeakers to warn protesters they face arrest for trespassing on Parliament grounds if they refuse to leave. Pepper spray was used against some protesters.
Police Commissioner Andrew Coster said it was time to clear the roads of Wellington, New Zealand’s capital.
Ardern said the protests have been fueled by misinformation and conspiracy theories.
The protest began as a stand against Covid-19 vaccine mandates but was later joined by groups calling for an end to all pandemic restrictions.
“We are fighting for our standard of life. We want our sovereign right to our bodies,” said Kate Siegert, who is unvaccinated, as she watched protesters move forward to block police advances.
Siegert, who has made several trips from her home in Auckland to join the protest, said she lost her IT job because of mandates requiring vaccination for those who work in the health industry.
At least 10 children were seen within the protest area, and police said they had concerns for their well-being.
Lisa Suasua, 55, who has been part of the protests for weeks, said she will stay until the end.
“They (the police) have been pretty brutal. They don’t talk, they ask us to move on,” she said.
“They came in about 6 in the morning and started pulling up the tents in the church (grounds) that has women and children in it and just started coming through with their riot gear,” she said.
A country of 5 million people, New Zealand imposed tough anti-virus curbs that restricted its cases to just over 118,000 and 56 deaths, far lower than in many developed countries. But fueled by the omicron variant, daily infections are currently hovering near record levels.
About 95 percent of eligible people are vaccinated with two doses, with shots mandatory for some staff in front-line jobs.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism