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Protests in Brussels against coronavirus restrictions spiralled into violence on Sunday as protesters clashed with police officers and vandalized the offices of the European External Action Service, the EU’s diplomatic arm.
In one of the largest demonstrations against COVID-19 measures in the city, an estimated 50,000 people poured onto the streets, including groups traveling from outside Belgium, according to a police spokesperson. The demonstration was organized by the EU-wide network Europeans United for Freedom and other groups that oppose health restrictions.
Police used teargas and water cannons to clear the Cinquantenaire park near the EU institutions after groups of protesters threw objects at officers and charged at them. Live footage showed protesters at street level hurling metal fences and a burning dustbin at policemen below them in the entrance to a metro station. An escalator was later shown burning.
Hooded and masked demonstrators shattered the glass exterior of the EEAS office while police were inside.
“The side entrance was vandalized,” said a Commission spokesperson, adding that nobody was in danger. Top diplomat Josep Borrell visited the offices to inspect the damage and tweeted his condemnation of “the senseless destruction and violence.”
The police said on Sunday evening that three officers and 12 protesters were taken to hospital, but none with life-threatening injuries. About 70 people were detained, they added.
The police spokesperson said that the situation around the EEAS building had cooled by around 5:30 p.m. Six people were arrested before the protest started, according to the spokesperson, with more people detained afterward.
Police said they began clearing the protesters out of the streets at around 4.30 p.m., saying those who refused to leave would be arrested. By around 8 p.m. local time, the demonstration and rioters appeared to be cleared out.
Protesters have been staging demonstrations against coronavirus restrictions regularly in the Belgian capital since last year, but Sunday’s rally marked a major uptick in participation compared with an estimated 5,000 protesters earlier this month, and more than the roughly 35,000 people who attended a protest last November that had also turned violent.
“Our main demand is that emergency measures are introduced in a democratic and balanced way,” Tom Meert, chairman of Europeans United for Freedom, wrote on the group’s website.
“We do not deny that there are diseases. Our arguments would be the same in the case of a natural disaster or any other crisis: a country’s policies must be deliberate and founded on the principles of the democratic rule of law.”
David M. Herszenhorn contributed reporting.