The anti-vaccine demonstrators in New Zealand's capital Wellington set several tents and a slide on Parliament's lawn on fire during violent skirmish with police officers on Wednesday. The protest has been going on for 23 days.
Clashes erupted after police officers with riot shield moved in to clear the ground. They pulled down tents, and deployed a large forklift to remove cars and campervans to vehicle transporters.
Multiple loud sirens rang out and cops fired rubber bullets at protesters after earlier turning fire hoses on them, New Zealand Herald reported.
The firefighters moved in quickly, clearing parts of tents, gazebos and other items from the ground which cost $572,000 to build, the report further said.
Trains have been suspended and Wellington station closed to ensure safety of passengers amid the protest around Parliament.
Inspired by truckers' demonstrations in Canada, hundreds of protesters have been blocking streets near Parliament with trucks, cars and motorcycles for more than three weeks to give a push to the movement against coronavirus vaccine mandates.
Police said 60 people have been arrested so far and they have "gained significant ground" in efforts to clear the protesters. At least three officers were injured, they added.
Protesters used fire extinguishers, paint-filled projectiles, homemade plywood shields and pitchforks as weapons and a cord was set up as a trip wire, police said. Social media footage showed protesters throwing full water bottles and shouting abuse at the police.
Wellington, New Zealand.. it's about to erupt.. police taking a beating pic.twitter.com/RG1g9KCcHi— Pelham (@Resist_05) March 2, 2022
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said she is "both angry and deeply saddened" to see Parliament's grounds "desecrated" by protesters.
The protest began as a stand against COVID-19 vaccine mandates but was later joined by groups calling for an end to all pandemic restrictions.
A country of five million people, New Zealand imposed tough anti-virus curbs that restricted its cases to just over 118,000 and 56 deaths, far lower than in many developed countries. But fuelled by the Omicron variant, daily infections are currently hovering near record levels.
About 95% of eligible people are vaccinated with two doses, with shots mandatory for some staff in front-line jobs.