Germany: police clash with protesters against virus measures

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People without face masks attend a protest against government restrictions to curb the spread of the coronavirus, in London, Saturday, March 20, 2021. (AP Photo/Alberto Pezzali)

BERLIN – Protesters in Germany clashed with police Saturday over coronavirus measures, with officers using water cannons, pepper spray and batons against people trying to break through police barriers, German news agency dpa reported.

Protests against government measures to rein in the pandemic also were reported in several other countries across Europe, including Austria, Britain, Finland, Romania and Switzerland.

More than 20,000 people participated in the protest in the central German city of Kassel, where there also were confrontations between the demonstrators and counter-protesters.

Thousands of people marched through downtown Kassel despite a court ban, and most didn't comply with infection-control protocols such as wearing face masks. Some protesters attacked officers and several journalists, dpa said.

Federal police, who were brought in beforehand from other parts of Germany, used water cannons and helicopters to control the crowds, the news agency reported.

Police said several people were detained, but didn't give any numbers.

Various groups, most of them far-right opponents of government regulations to fight the pandemic, had called for protests Saturday in cities across the country.

Virus infections have gone up again in Germany in recent weeks and the government is set to decide next week on how to react.

Chancellor Angela Merkel said Friday Germany will have to apply an “emergency brake” and reverse some recent relaxations of restrictions as coronavirus infections accelerate.

Germany’s national disease control center said new infections were growing exponentially as the more contagious COVID-19 variant first detected in Britain has become dominant in the country.

On Saturday, the Robert Koch Institute reported 16,033 new cases and registered 207 additional deaths, bringing the overall death toll to 74,565 in Germany.

In Berlin, some 1,800 police officers were on standby for possible riots, but only about 500 protesters assembled at the city's landmark Brandenburg Gate. Meanwhile, around 1,000 citizens came together on Berlin's Unter den Linden boulevard to protest against the far-right demonstration.

Protesters also hit the streets in other cities across Europe. In London, demonstrators opposing the U.K.'s months-long lockdown defied police who warned of potential fines and arrest for violating prohibitions on most group meetings.

The demonstration took place after more than 60 lawmakers signed a letter demanding that the government change the law and allow protests to take place even when pandemic restrictions bar other types of gatherings.

The letter, coordinated by the civil rights groups Liberty and Big Brother Watch, followed police roughly breaking up a vigil last weekend in honor of Sarah Everard, a woman who was abducted while walking home in London. A London police officer has been charged with her kidnapping and murder.

In Finland, police estimated that about 400 people without masks and packed tightly together gathered in the capital, Helsinki, to protest government-imposed COVID-19 restrictions. Smaller demonstrations were scheduled in other Finnish cities.

Before the Helsinki rally, some 300 people chanting slogans like “Let the people speak!” and carrying placards with phrases such as “Facts and numbers don’t add up” marched through the streets of the city, ending up at the Parliament building.

Helsinki police tweeted that the registered march and rally took place peacefully but violated social distancing requirements and Finland’s current limits on public gatherings.

More than a thousand anti-vaccination protesters took to the streets in Romania's capital of Bucharest amid a surge of COVID-19 infections there.

The largely mask-less crowd honked horns, waved national flags, and chanted messages such as “Block vaccination,” and “Freedom.” One placard read: “Parents, protect your children! Stop the fear!”

Romania’s far-right AUR party has strongly backed a movement linked to nationalism that planned anti-vaccination demonstrations in recent weeks.

In Austria, about 1,000 protesters participated in a demonstrations against the government's virus measures near Vienna's central train station. Police reprimanded several protesters who were not wearing masks and remaining too close together, news agency APA reported.

In Switzerland, more than 5,000 protesters met for a silent march in the community of Liestal 15 kilometers (9 miles) southeast of the city of Basel, local media reported. Most didn't wear masks and some held up banners with slogans like “Vaccinating kills.”

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Jari Tanner in Helsinki, Finland, Danica Kirka in London, and Stephen McGrath in Bucharest, Romania contributed reporting.