Violence erupted at demonstrations in Belgium and the Netherlands over the weekend as tougher Covid-19 restrictions to curb the resurgent pandemic led to angry protests in several European countries.
Ten of thousands of people marched through central Brussels on Sunday to protest against reinforced restrictions imposed by the Belgian government to counter the latest rise in coronavirus cases. The march, which police estimated involved 35,000 people, began peacefully but descended into violence as several hundred people started pelting officers, smashing cars and setting rubbish bins on fire. Police responded with teargas and water cannon.
“We have injuries but we cannot yet say how many,” said Ilse Vande Keere, a police spokesperson. It was also unclear how many people had been detained.
Demonstrators had earlier gathered to protest against the government’s advice to get vaccinated and any possible moves to impose mandatory shots. Shouting “freedom, freedom, freedom!” and singing the anti-fascist song Bella Ciao, protesters lined up behind a huge banner saying “together for freedom” and marched to the EU headquarters. Signs among the crowd varied from far-right insignia to the rainbow flags of the LGBT community.
It followed a second night of violence in the Netherlands on Saturday, when five police officers were injured and at least 40 people arrested. Dutch authorities deployed water cannon, dogs and mounted police to dispel crowds of rioting youths who lit fires and lobbed fireworks in The Hague and elsewhere, after more than 50 people were arrested in Rotterdam on Friday.
There were also demonstrations in Austria, Italy, Switzerland, Denmark, Croatia and the French overseas territory of Guadeloupe as governments in various EU countries battle a fourth wave of the pandemic, imposing partial lockdowns and tighter restrictions, particularly on the unvaccinated.
Police said on Sunday that 19 people had been arrested in The Hague in protests triggered by government plans to restrict a national coronavirus pass required to enter bars, restaurants and other venues to people who are fully vaccinated or have recovered from Covid-19 – excluding those with a negative test.
Mounted officers carried out charges and five were hurt, one seriously. One protester was detained after throwing a rock through an ambulance window. Eight people were also arrested in the former fishing village of Urk.
Two matches in the country’s top professional football league being played behind closed doors under a three-week partial lockdown imposed last Saturday were briefly halted when fans forced their way into stadiums in Alkmaar and Almelo.
Another 13 arrests were reported by police in two towns in the southern province of Limburg, and disturbances were also reported in the northern province of Flevoland. The protesters were also angry at a New Year’s Eve firework ban.
The latest incidents in the Netherlands – where coronavirus infections have surged to record levels in recent weeks, putting hospitals under severe strain – followed what Rotterdam’s mayor, Ahmed Aboutaleb, called “an orgy of violence” on Friday night.
Police opened fire on a crowd that had swelled to hundreds during the protest and three people believed to have been hit by police bullets were still being treated in hospital on Sunday, according to a statement from authorities.
Thousands of people also marched peacefully through Amsterdam and the southern Dutch city of Breda earlier on Saturday in protest at the restrictions, with little or no trouble reported.
In Austria, which on Friday announced a 20-day nationwide partial lockdown – the toughest in western Europe for months – and made vaccination mandatory for all from February, as many as 40,000 went out to protest in central Vienna.
Responding to a call from the far-right Freedom party (FPÖ), the protesters carried banners reading “corona dictatorship” and “divided society”. Some wore yellow stars reading “not vaccinated”.
The interior minister, Karl Nehammer, expressed his outrage, saying in a statement that the star “insults the millions of victims of the Nazi dictatorship and their families”.
Thousands of protesters also marched in Croatia’s capital, Zagreb, while in Denmark about a thousand people protested against government plans to reinstate a measure requiring public sector workers to be vaccinated in order to access their workplaces.
The French interior minister, Gérald Darmanin, on Saturday condemned violent demonstrations in the overseas territory of Guadeloupe, where 31 people were detained by police overnight amid riots over a nightly 6pm to 5am curfew.
The protesters also denounced France’s health pass, which has been required since the summer to access restaurants, cafes, cinemas and theatres, exercise in gyms, attend sporting events and take planes or long-distance trains.
“The first message is that the state will stand firm,” Darmanin told reporters, adding France would send about 50 members of the GIGN and Raid elite tactical forces of the gendarmerie and police to the territory, where stores have been looted and shots fired at police.
The extra forces will increase the number of police and gendarmes available in Guadeloupe to 2,250. The French prime minister, Jean Castex, is expected to meet officials from the island on Monday to discuss the deteriorating situation.