WELLINGTON (BLOOMBERG) - Tension has escalated as police step up their efforts to shift the anti-mandate protest in Wellington, with fires breaking out in the grounds of parliament amid violent clashes.
Protesters are throwing items onto the flames and small explosions were heard. Some of the occupiers were in running skirmishes with police, hurling objects against their plastic riot shields.
The fires destroyed a slide which was part of the parliament children’s playground.
More than three weeks after the protest started, hundreds of police officers, some dressed in riot gear, began to tow vehicles and remove tents from streets surrounding Parliament buildings earlier on Wednesday, clashing with demonstrators and hauling some away in handcuffs.
A police helicopter is hovering over the government precinct of the capital city.
There were reports of police using pepper spray, while police said protesters were armed with pitchforks and homemade wooden shields.
They confirmed that 36 arrests have been made so far. Residents were urged to avoid the area as the operation continued."We have observed an escalation in concerning behavior which has ultimately resulted in today’s action," Police Commissioner Andrew Coster told a news conference.
"The harm being done far outweighs any legitimate protest. The balance has tipped and it is time to bring this to an end."
Inspired by the blockade in Ottawa, the protest against Covid-19 vaccine mandates and other restrictions has frustrated the government and annoyed residents in Wellington.
Protesters have blocked streets with their cars and campervans and turned Parliament grounds and surrounding areas into a tent village complete with food, massage and yoga tents and areas for children to play in.
There are concerns about hygiene at the site, particularly for young children.
After Covid-19 cases were identified among protesters, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern labeled it a "Covid camp".
While the occupation, now in its 23rd day, has largely been peaceful, there have been some confrontations and ugly incidents.
Last week, police said protesters threw human waste at officers, and three were taken to hospital after being sprayed with an acid-like substance.
There has also been footage of police punching demonstrators when tempers flared during efforts to reduce the perimeter around the protest site.
Police said their intention was to "restore order and access to the area around Parliament".
Police cordoned off the area on Wednesday and made progress clearing roads of vehicles. In a message broadcast from loud speakers at parliament, police said the grounds are now closed to the public and anyone occupying the site risks being arrested.
However, there was no sign at midday in Wellington of demonstrators abandoning the main protest camp.
Mr Victor Young, a 68-year-old volunteer in the food tent, said protesters used milk to treat those pepper sprayed by police in the early-morning clashes.
"I wasn’t there on the front line, but they were pepper sprayed, and we kept the milk out," he said. "The mums, dads, people who have lost jobs and been hurting, there has not been any genuine attempt to come down and talk to us."
While the main demand of the protesters appears to be an end to vaccine mandates, there are a range of groups among them.
Some espouse conspiracy theories and police have identified some far-right activists. Some placards and graffiti of the protesters have also called for violence against politicians and the media.