Demonstrators march past Parliament Square in London to protest against Government spending cuts Saturday March 26, 2011. Tens of thousands of protesters crowded central London on Saturday to protest government cuts to public services, streaming in from around the country with banners, balloons and whistles. – Photo by AP

LONDON: Several hundred masked protesters clashed with police, attacked shops and occupied a top store in London Saturday after hundreds of thousands of people rallied against government austerity measures.

About 4,500 police officers struggled to control escalating violence in the British capital's main shopping district, where a breakaway group of demonstrators went on the rampage.

The unrest overshadowed a peaceful march earlier in the day of up to 300,000 protesters against harsh public spending cuts introduced by the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government.

Clad in black and covering their faces with scarves, the protesters clashed with police, hurling fireworks, petrol bombs and paint.

Clothes store Topshop and bank HSBC had their windows smashed, while some protesters hurled missiles at London's landmark Ritz Hotel. Others lit a bonfire at Oxford Circus, in the heart of the shopping district.

UK Uncut, a group running a campaign against government cuts and corporate tax avoidance, said it had occupied luxury department store Fortnum & Mason in the shopping district. They accused the owners of tax-dodging.

Five police officers were injured, with one being taken to hospital, Scotland Yard said. Twenty-eight members of the public were injured over the course of the day and seven were taken to hospital, police said.

Commander Bob Broadhurst, who led the police operation, said a group of around 500 protesters were behind the violence.

“I wouldn't call them protesters. They are engaging in criminal activities for their own ends,” he said.

“We anticipated there would be some problems. We have minimised the damage caused,” he added.

“We'll never have enough officers to protect every building in central London. It cannot be done.” Several student demonstrations descended into violence last year, with one culminating in protesters damaging the car carrying heir-to-the-throne Prince Charles and his wife Camilla.

The violent end to the day came after the peaceful rally which organisers the Trades Union Congress (TUC) said was attended by between 250,000 and 300,000 people.

It was the largest protest in the British capital since around one million people marched against the Iraq war in February 2003.

Public sector workers, students and pensioners waving signs which read “Don't Break Britain” and “No to Cuts” thronged the streets of the capital.

Many families with children were among the protesters and the air was filled with the low-pitched bellow of the vuvuzela, the plastic trumpet whose droning provided the soundtrack for the football World Cup in South Africa.

Bagpipers, steel bands, choirs and dancers were also out for the event.

The march started by the river Thames, passed the Houses of Parliament and Prime Minister David Cameron's Downing Street residence before ending in a rally in Hyde Park addressed by opposition Labour party leader Ed Miliband.

“Our struggle is to fight to preserve, protect and defend the best of the services we cherish because they represent the best of the country we love,” Miliband told the rally.

After coming to power in May, the coalition announced cuts worth #81 billion ($131 billion, 92 billion Euros) over five years in order to slash a record public deficit it blames on the previous Labour government.

The announced cuts involve most government departments, with the loss of 300,000 public service jobs and pay freezes for civil servants. -- AFP