BRUSSELS: Belgian police fired water cannon and tear gas as they moved in on Saturday to clear a crowd of several hundred gathered in a park to protest anti-virus lockdown rules.

By dusk the crowd had dispersed, but the Brussels mayor’s office announced 15 arrests, one demonstrator injured by a water jet and two police officers hurt.

The defiant, mainly young group brandishing flares and anti-mask banners had assembled for the so-called “Boum 2” protest, organised online, as a follow up to an action that was broken up last month.

City authorities said that at its peak the crowd reached around 1,500 but many were bystanders and only 700 initially resisted orders to disperse.

Prime Minister Alexander de Croo had urged the crowds to stay away, and hundreds of officers were deployed before the order to clear the park was given.

Reporters in the Bois de la Cambre, a large park in the city, saw fireworks set off and some missiles thrown before police moved in.

“We see that health measures are not being respected,” police announced on Twitter, after drones equipped with loudspeakers called for masks and distancing.

“Brussels police will proceed to clear the area,” the tweet read. Reporters in the park did not hear an order to disperse.

As the clearance operation began there was little immediate sign of violent resistance from protesters but a dustbin was set on fire as the crowd retreated.

“We’re here to protect our freedom. Masks? I don’t wear them anymore. I want to be free,” said an 18-year-old high schooler from West Flanders, outside the city.

As police cars and armoured trucks with water cannon rolled onto the grass close to the heart of the gathering, the merry-makers chanted: “Freedom, Freedom.”

Published in Dawn, May 2nd, 2021

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