On Sunday, what was planned to be a peaceful protest against the latest coronavirus measures in Brussels soon turned into riots that resulted in injured officers and dozens of arrests. As the Belgian capital takes stock of the damage, images show the alarming descent into violence.
Around 35,000 people took to the city streets on Sunday afternoon to take part in the protest – dubbed 'Together for Freedom'.
People gathered near the capital's North Station and were set to follow the route agreed with the authorities, passing by the inner ring road and turning into Rue Joseph II to finally reach Parc du Cinquentenaire by 5:00 PM, under the supervision of the police.
The tens of thousands of demonstrators gathered to protest against the stricter measures introduced to curb the fourth coronavirus wave.
On Saturday, new measures came into force which the government said would avoid needing to take more drastic ones later, as was done in Austria. These included making face masks obligatory in places where the Covid Safe Ticket is being used and implementing mandatory face masks for people aged ten and over.
The demonstrators also protested against the decision to make vaccination mandatory for health care staff from April 2022. People in the crowd, of whom very few were wearing face masks, called for freedom and carried signs with slogans against vaccination and other measures.
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Ahead of the protest, police had said they did not expect protests to end in a similar situation to the riots in The Netherlands earlier in the weekend.
However, not long after the protest began (around 2:45 PM) some participants failed to follow the assigned route where the march was to leave the Avenue des Arts and turn into Rue Joseph II.
Demonstrators had started to aim fireworks at police and wanted to continue to march straight on the small ring road, according to police reports. The police used fire hoses on account of the fireworks being thrown.
Around 5:00 PM – the scheduled break-up time of the demonstration – demonstrators had reached the Schuman roundabout. Most of the crowd dispersed but several thousand remained.
More fireworks were being launched at the police alongside other projectiles. In response, the police used tear gas and water cannons to control the crowds and put out fires. It was announced on Twitter that arrests would be made as the police started pushing the remaining participants into Parc du Cinquentenaire.
Ilse Van de keere, spokesperson for the Brussels Capital Ixelles police zone, confirmed to The Brussels Times that 42 administrative and 2 judicial arrests were made following the riots. Meanwhile, three police officers have suffered injuries that will temporarily prevent them from working.
She added that considerable damage was caused during the riots as protesters vandalised cars, shop windows, street furniture and private property. Several police vehicles were also damaged by rioters. The full extent of the damage caused by the riots is being assessed by police.
Brussels' mayor Phillipe Close strongly condemned the riots and asked the police to analyse surveillance camera footage to identify the perpetrators. The demonstration's organisers have since also spoken out against the riots which followed what was meant to be a peaceful protest.
On Monday, Prime Minister Alexander De Croo also denounced the "purely criminal behaviour" of a "small group" of demonstrators.
"The right to demonstrate and freedom of expression are important, but if this ends up in a wave of violence, it is completely unacceptable and certainly if it is directed against the police," he said.
De Croo called for unity and respect for the rules. "We are in a difficult period and in the health care sector, everyone gives their best. I understand that some people have doubts, but let's base the debate on correct information, not on misinformation."