Police fired water cannons and thick clouds of tear gas Sunday in Brussels to disperse people protesting COVID-19 vaccinations and government restrictions that aim to curb the fast-spreading omicron variant.
Police said the protest in the Belgian capital drew an estimated 50,000 people, some traveling from France, Germany and other countries to take part. Protesters yelled “Liberty!” as they marched and some had violent confrontations with police. Video showed black-clad protesters attacking a building used by the European Union’s diplomatic service, hurling projectiles at its entrance and smashing windows.
A much smaller number of anti-vaccination demonstrators marched in Barcelona.
The protests followed demonstrations in other European capitals on Saturday against vaccine passports and other requirements that European governments have imposed as daily infections and hospitalizations have surged due to the omicron variant.
In Brussels, white-helmeted police riot officers repeatedly charged after protesters who ignored instructions to disperse. Police water cannon trucks fired powerful jets and snaking trails of gas filled the air.
A protest leader broadcasting over a loudspeaker yelled, “Come on people! Don’t let them take away your rights!” as police officers faced off against demonstrators who hurled projectiles and insults. “Go to hell!” shouted one protester wearing a fake knight’s helmet with a colorful quiff.
Brussels police said 70 people were detained and three officers and 12 demonstrators required hospital treatment.
Some protesters attacked a video team covering the march for The Associated Press, pushing and threatening the journalists and damaging their video equipment. One protester kicked one of the journalists and another tried to punch him.
Nearly 77% of Belgium’s population has been fully vaccinated, and 53% have had a booster dose, according to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control. Belgium has seen more than 28,700 virus deaths overall.
In downtown Barcelona, protesters wore costumes and waved banners reading “It’s not a pandemic, it’s a dictatorship,” as they marched against against restrictions imposed by both national and regional authorities to curb a surge in COVID-19 cases fueled by the omicron variant.
Participants included people rejecting vaccines and those who deny the existence or gravity of the virus. Few donned face masks, which are currently mandatory outdoors in Spain. Police said 1,100 people attended.
Spain, a country of 47 million, has officially recorded over 9 million coronavirus cases, although the real number is believed to be much higher. Nearly 92,000 COVID-19 patients.
With over 80% of Spain’s residents vaccinated, experts have credited the shots for saving thousands of lives and averting the total collapse of its public health system.