Belgian police have fired teargas and water cannon to disperse protestors opposed to state-imposed compulsory measures against the coronavirus pandemic.
Thousands of protesters took to the streets in Brussels and marched towards the headquarters of the European Union (EU), raising slogans of “freedom” and indulging in fireworks.
What began as a peaceful protest turned violent when protesters were blocked from reaching the roundabout outside the EU office by a barbed-wire barricade and a heavy deployment of riot police officers, reports said.
As two drones and a helicopter circled overhead, some demonstrators reportedly threw fireworks and beer cans at the police, who in turn responded with teargas and water cannons.
The police action broke the crowd into smaller groups that engaged in more clashes and set fire to barricades and trash bins, according to reports.
The demonstrators were demanding the reversal of recent government measures that require the people to show COVID-19 passes to access different public spaces.
Several European countries have seen large-scale demonstrations in recent weeks as governments have moved to impose tighter restrictions in order to contain the surge of new COVID-19 infections.
The emergence of new Omicron variant of the coronavirus has fueled more concerns, sending shock waves across the continent.
The protests on Sunday appeared to be a repeat of November 21 demonstration in which protesters clashed violently with police in Brussels, resulting in multiple arrests and injuries.
“I can’t bear discrimination in any form, and now there’s the vaccine pass which is discriminatory, sanctions for (unvaccinated) carers which are discriminatory too, there’s mandatory vaccination which is heading our way,” said one protester.
“That’s all discrimination, so we have to fight it. We don’t want a dictatorship.”
The protest rally came after Friday’s announcement of new measures as part of efforts to contain one of Europe’s highest infection rates, including mandatory mask wearing for most primary school children and a lengthening of the school holidays.
Belgian Prime Minister Alexander de Croo on Friday announced a series of measures to tighten sanitary rules, bringing school Christmas holidays forward and asking children aged six and over to wear masks.
Belgium, with a population of 11 million, has recorded an average of more than 17,800 daily infections from COVID-19 during the past seven days, as well as 44 deaths.
Nearly 800 people with severe forms of the disease are in intensive care in hospitals across the country, leading to overcrowding and the postponement of treatment for many other conditions.
The protests in Brussels came as the European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen on Wednesday said that it was time to “think about mandatory vaccination,” an idea censured by speakers at the Sunday protest.
Meanwhile, protest rallies were also held in other major West European cities.
Nearly 40,000 protesters gathered in the Austrian capital Vienna on Saturday to denounce a lockdown set to come into force on Monday as well as compulsory vaccination likely to begin in February.
Protesters carried signs saying “No to Vaccine Mandates” or “Jesus Protects the Children, not Vaccines.” Many participants ignored mask requirements.
Similar demonstrations were also reported in Luxembourg, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands during the weekend.