Belgium police fire water cannon at anti-austerity protest in Brussels: Journalists

Demonstrators protest at a national demonstration of the three main trade unions, in Brussels, Belgium, on May 24, 2016.
Demonstrators protest at a national demonstration of the three main trade unions, in Brussels, Belgium, on May 24, 2016. PHOTO: EPA

BRUSSELS (AFP) - Belgian police Tuesday (May 24) fired water cannon during clashes with protesters at a huge demonstration in Brussels against the centre-right government’s labour reform plans, leaving 10 people injured.

A group of around 100 masked protesters broke away from the peaceful main rally of around 60,000 people in the Belgian capital and started hurling objects and firecrackers at riot police, AFP journalists said.

Officers then drove them back with jets of water from three cannon in the clashes, which took place near the terminal for the Eurostar high-speed international train that links London and Brussels.

Eight protesters and two police officers were injured, the Belga news agency quoted the police as saying.

The protest was supposed to kick off months of planned demonstrations and national strikes led by trade unions against the austerity policies of Prime Minister Charles Michel’s government.

It came as the government in neighbouring France stepped up efforts to break blockades and strikes at refineries that are threatening to paralyse the country ahead of the Euro 2016 football tournament.

“I am here to protest against all the measures that this right-wing government is taking. They are attacking workers, pensioners and the unemployed,” Michel Beis, a union member taking part in the rally told AFP before the violence broke out.

Security had been tight amid fears of a repeat of the violence that marred a mass rally against reforms announced by Michel just after he came to power in 2014.

Brussels also remains under security alert following the March 22 suicide bombings at the airport and metro system, claimed by the Islamic State group.

Three main unions oppose proposed reforms from Employment Minister Kris Peeters allowing employers to impose a more flexible work week of up to 45 hours if needed, followed by shorter weeks to retain the principle of the 38-hour work week.

A mass public services rally and a rail strike are now due to take place on May 31, as well as general strikes on June 24, Sept 29 and Oct 7.

“We are going backwards,” said Jacques Warnier, a protester from the town of Liege.

Former socialist prime minister Elio di Rupo was among the crowd of protesters, who wore red, green and blue tops in the colours of the main unions from both Dutch-speaking Flanders and French-speaking Wallonia.

“The government endlessly talks about social dialogue but it doesn’t take into account the arguments of the unions and does not respect the dignity of the workers,” said Marc Goblet, head of the socialist FGTB union.

Belgium’s government faces pressure on several fronts, being unable to end a near month-long strike by prison staff which has forced it to mobilise the army to fill the gaps.

It has also come under fire for alleged security lapses in the run-up to the Brussels attacks as in the Nov 13 Islamic State in Iraq and Syria gun attacks and suicide bombings that killed 130 people in Paris.