New Zealand vaccine protests turn violent as tension rises

Increasingly violent demonstrations in New Zealand against vaccination mandates are set to spill over into a fourth week as police warned protesters they would “actively engage” with anyone crossing Auckland’s harbor bridge illegally this week.

The planned march across the bridge will severely disrupt traffic in the center of one of the country’s largest cities as protesters ignore pleas to stop agitating against the government’s Covid-19 policies.

New Zealand is on ‘red alert’ as Omicron has spread through the community as cases doubled overnight on Friday to reach more than 12,000, including five deaths.

Jacinda Ardern, prime minister, has warned that the country – one of the last to loosen restrictions on travel and immigration having closed its borders to try to keep Covid-19 out – has “a rough few weeks ahead of us”.

New Zealand has struggled with the Omicron outbreak while failing to contain a growing protest movement inspired by the Canada trucker siege and the ‘Canberra convoy’ in Australia over the past month.

A tent occupation on the lawn outside the parliament building in Wellington has remained in place for three weeks despite Ardern’s plea for protesters to “go home”. Large protests are now set to spread to other cities as the movement has gained in strength while more people have arrived in recent days to join the Wellington occupation.

Initial attempts to disperse the Wellington crowd, which involved playing Barry Manilow songs and turning on lawn sprinklers, failed. Police said they would not intervene in the mostly peaceful protest despite the disruption caused to local businesses as protesters blocked some of Wellington’s busiest streets with their cars.

Yet tensions have flared over the past week. On Thursday, Ardern was escorted by police from a school in Christchurch after being surrounded by anti-vaccination protesters.

Michael Wood, the transport minister, said in parliament that while many of the protesters could be described as confused, scared or manipulated, the wider movement was underpinned by a “river of filth” with fascist elements. “There is a river of violence and menace,” he said.

The police moved to limit the impact of the protest in recent days citing illegal behavior including the harassment of local businesses, passers-by and school children by the 1,000-strong occupation.

Concrete bollards were placed to stop cars entering the streets around parliament and the police increased their presence around the site.

The authorities’ actions triggered a strong reaction from some elements within the protest movement. The police said that human faecal matter was thrown at officers last week and that a “stinging substance” was sprayed on them. A car was also driven at police officers.

Reports of a protester carrying a firearm were investigated but the man was instead found to be carrying a taiahaa traditional Maori weapon.

The police said they had made 132 arrests.

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