hick black smoke billowed across the grounds of New Zealand’s Parliament on Wednesday as retreating protesters set fire to tents, mattresses and chairs.
It was the final act of defiance as police broke up the camp that protesters first set up more than three weeks ago.
Police retook control of the Parliament grounds although dozens of protesters remained in nearby streets, some hurling objects at police.
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said in planning the operation, police had expected hostility, resistance and violence – but it was another thing entirely to witness it.
“I was both angry and also deeply saddened. To see the Parliament – your Parliament, our Parliament – desecrated in that way, and a children’s playground destroyed, by a small group of illegal protesters,” Ms Ardern said. “But, as I say, it’s not something that will define New Zealand’s response to this pandemic.”
Earlier, police wearing riot gear and using pepper spray had moved in on hundreds of protesters who had been occupying the grounds and surrounding streets. Police efforts in the morning focused on the periphery of the protest before turning to the main camp in the afternoon.
It was the most significant use of force to date by authorities against the protesters, who oppose coronavirus vaccine mandates. As the protesters retreated in the afternoon, they tossed objects onto several fires, which police eventually doused with water hoses.
The operation began at dawn, when police started telling protesters over loudspeakers they were trespassing and needed to leave, while officers tore down tents in peripheral areas and a police helicopter circled overhead. Some protesters confronted police and used milk to try and clear their eyes from pepper spray.
Police also towed some of the 300 or so cars, vans and trucks that protesters have used to block streets. The convoy protest was inspired by similar protests in Canada and has sparked other protests around New Zealand.
Police Commissioner Andrew Coster told reporters they had brought in several hundred additional officers from around the country for the operation, which would continue until all the vehicles and tents were gone.
Coster said some protesters had sprayed fire extinguishers and thrown paint at officers as they advanced, and others had used makeshift shields and barricades. He said a laser pointer was aimed at the police helicopter.
By evening, police reported they had towed about 50 vehicles and another 30 had left. They had arrested 65 protesters for trespassing, causing damage and carrying weapons. And three officers had been treated at a local hospital for non-life-threatening injuries.
Protesters said in a statement they were united in wanting mandates dropped and to make their own informed choices regarding their health, free from coercion and punishment. They said the vast majority of protesters had been well-behaved and had chosen to camp as a last resort after other options for dialogue were quashed.
The protests have led to a more charged political atmosphere across New Zealand. Ms Ardern’s security detail has been increased after protesters heckled her at events, including as she was leaving a school visit in Christchurch last week.
Ardern on Wednesday said the protest had been fueled by misinformation and conspiracy theories. She also pointed out that Covid had spread at the protest and some protesters had been hospitalized.
New Zealand is experiencing its biggest outbreak since the pandemic began as the omicron variant spreads. On Wednesday, health authorities reported a record 22,000 new daily cases.
Ardern has said she plans to begin easing virus mandates and restrictions after the peak of the omicron outbreak has passed.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, New Zealand has reported just 56 virus deaths among its population of 5 million, after it imposed strict border controls and lockdowns to eliminate outbreaks.