Belgian PM slams 'unacceptable' Covid protest violence

Rotterdam mayor Ahmed Aboutaleb denounced the previous night's rioting as an 'orgy of violence'. Protests against Covid measures turned into clashes overnight 19-20 November 2021. PHOTO | AFP

Brussels. Belgium's Prime Minister Alexander de Croo on Monday denounced an "absolutely unacceptable" outbreak of violence during a 35,000-strong Brussels street protest against tougher anti-Covid measures.

Three police officers were hurt on Sunday when opponents of tougher vaccine pass rules, imposed to head off a new wave of coronavirus infections, threw stones and set fires in the city centre.

Speaking to reporters after a meeting with his French counterpart Jean Castex, De Croo thanked the police for working to protect public order in a "very, very difficult period".

Like several other European countries, Belgium is experiencing a stark surge in new coronavirus infections as winter sets in -- despite a relatively successful vaccination campaign.

Last week, De Croo's government announced the reimposition of tougher vaccine rules, including mandatory home working for some and mandatory mask-wearing.

Sceptics chanting "freedom, freedom" marched on Sunday in Brussels, after protests and violence erupted in the neighbouring Netherlands, and violence erupted against police.

"We live in a free country, we can protest, but the way in which some demonstrators behaved had nothing to do with freedom," De Croo complained.

"It had nothing to do with whether vaccination was a good thing or not, this was criminal behaviour."

Some of the protesters were opposed to vaccines, others to compulsory health measures they saw as infringements of personal liberty. Many carried Flemish nationalist flags.

A small minority brandished signs suggesting belief in extreme conspiracy theories or antisemitic views.

Police deployed water cannon trucks and tear gas to disperse the crowds, after officers were pelted with missiles and street furniture was piled onto burning barricades.