Violent clashes break out across Europe as demonstrators protest Covid restrictions

Several European cities experienced a weekend of violent clashes as tens of thousands of demonstrators took to the streets to protest against Covid measures. 

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte on Monday slammed the “violence under the guise of protest”, saying that while he defends the right to demonstrate peacefully, he “will never accept that idiots use pure violence”.

Around 145 people were arrested in the Netherlands  over three days of unrest sparked by a Covid curfew.

Demonstrators set off fireworks and vandalised property in the northern cities of Groningen and Leeuwarden, as well as in Enschede to the east and Tilburg to the south, police said.

A football match in the nearby city of Leeuwarden was briefly disrupted after supporters, who are barred from games because of the COVID-19  restrictions, threw fireworks into the ground, Dutch media reported.

On Friday night, there was also unrest in Rotterdam with outbreaks of violence in The Hague on Saturday.

“People want to live,” said one of the organisers of the Dutch protests, Joost Eras. “That’s why we’re here.”

Belgium’s Prime Minister Alexander de Croo  denounced an “absolutely unacceptable” outbreak of violence, after three police officers were reportedly injured.

In Brussels on Sunday, officers fired water cannons and tear gas during a protest that saw 35,000 people take to the street.

The march, in the city’s European Union and government district, largely focused on a ban on unvaccinated people from entering venues such as restaurants and bars.

It began peacefully but police later fired water cannon and tear gas in response to protesters throwing projectiles, a photographer with the French news agency AFP, said

Several of the demonstrators caught up in the clash wore hoods and carried Flemish nationalist flags, while others wore Nazi-era yellow stars.

Protesters set fire to wooden pallets, while social media images showed them attacking police vans with street signs.

In Austria, around 6,000 people gathered in the city of Linz in a protest organised by a new political party.

It came a day after 40,000 marched in Vienna over the partial lockdown, decrying “dictatorship”.

Vienna’s rally was organised by a far-right political party, at which some protesters wore a yellow star reading “not vaccinated”, mimicking the Star of David Nazis forced Jews to wear during the Holocaust.

From Monday, 8.9 million Austrians will not be allowed to leave home except to go to work, shop for essentials and exercise. And vaccination against Covid-19 in the Alpine nation will be mandatory from 1 February next year.

After taking office in October, Chancellor Alexander Schallenberg criticised the “shamefully low”  take up on vaccines — 66 percent compared to France’s 75 percent — and banned the un-jabbed from public spaces.

Political analyst Thomas Hofer blamed Schallenberg for maintaining “the fiction” of a successfully contained pandemic for too long.

“The government didn’t take the warnings of a next wave seriously,” he told AFP.

“The chaos is evident.”

Germany’s Health Minister Jens Spahn issued a fresh call on Monday for citizens to get vaccinated. This comes just days after announcing tougher coronavirus curbs to contain the country’s fourth wave.

“Probably by the end of this winter, as is sometimes cynically said, pretty much everyone in Germany will be vaccinated, cured or dead,” Spahn said, blaming “the very contagious Delta variant”.

The worsening coronavirus situation has ignited a debate about whether Germany  should follow Austria’s example and introduce mandatory vaccinations.

Spahn, who is in a caretaker position until Germany’s incoming new government is officially installed, told reporters he remained “sceptical” about mandatory jabs.

But health expert Karl Lauterbach from the centre-left Social Democrats, which narrowly won September’s general election, said he “can no longer rule it out” and it may even be unavoidable to defeat the Delta variant.

The outgoing chancellor, Angela Merkel, said on Monday that Germany’s current Covid curbs were not enough.

“We have a highly dramatic situation — the current rules are not enough,” Merkel told a meeting of leaders of her 

Nine of the 10 countries where the Covid-19 situation worsened fastest in the past week were in Europe (of countries with populations more than a million), according to an AFP tally.

In Spain and Denmark cases were up by 54 percent,  and were also up by slightly more than a half in Portugal.

Switzerland (up 45 percent), the Netherlands (44 percent) and France (43 percent) were not much better.

The Czech Republic saw a 38 percent rise, followed by Germany (36 percent) and Austria (32 percent).

This week’s wave through western Europe follows sharp rises in less vaccinated eastern Europe over the last few weeks.

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