BRUSSELS (AP) – Police fired water cannons and thick clouds of tear gas on Sunday in Brussels to disperse people protesting against COVID-19 vaccinations and government restrictions aimed at curbing the rapidly spreading omicron variant.
Police said the protest in the Belgian capital attracted an estimated 50,000 people, some of whom traveled from France, Germany and other countries to take part. Protesters shouted “Liberty!” as they marched and some had violent confrontations with the police. Video showed black-clad protesters attacks on a building used by the EU diplomatic service threw projectiles at its entrance and shattered windows.
A much smaller number of anti-vaccination protesters marched in Barcelona.
The protests followed demonstrations in other European capitals on Saturday against vaccine passports and other demands imposed by European governments as daily infections and hospitalizations have increased due to the omicron variant.
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In Brussels, rioters with white helmets repeatedly aimed at protesters who ignored instructions to disperse. Police water cannon trucks fired powerful jets, and meandering tracks of gas filled the air.
A protest leader broadcasting through a loudspeaker shouted, “Come on people! Do not let them take your rights away from you!” when police officers faced protesters throwing projectiles and insults. “Go to hell!” shouted a protester wearing a fake knight’s helmet with a colorful quiff.
Brussels police said 70 people had been detained and three officers and 12 protesters needed hospital treatment.
Some protesters attacked a video team covering the march for The Associated Press, pushing and threatening journalists and damaging their video equipment. A protester kicked one of the journalists and another tried to beat him.
Nearly 77% of Belgium’s population has been fully vaccinated and 53% have received a booster dose, according to the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control. Belgium has seen more than 28,700 virus deaths in total.
In the center of Barcelona, protesters wore costumes and waved banners that read “This is not a pandemic, this is a dictatorship” as they marched against restrictions imposed by both national and regional authorities to stem an increase in COVID-19 case driven by the omicron variant.
Participants included people who rejected vaccines and those who denied the existence or severity of the virus. Few applied face masks, which are currently mandatory outdoors in Spain. Police said 1,100 people attended.
Spain, a country with 47 million, has officially registered over 9 million coronavirus cases, although the real number is thought to be much higher. Nearly 92,000 COVID-19 patients.
With over 80% of Spain’s inhabitants vaccinated, experts have credited the shots for saving thousands of lives and averting the total collapse of its public health system.
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