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Water cannon, tear gas used against anti-vaccine protests in Brussels

Demonstrators from as far away as France and Germany marched in the latest round of protests.
Credit: AP
Police set off a water cannon against protestors during a demonstration against COVID-19 measures in Brussels, Sunday, Jan. 23, 2022. Demonstrators gathered in the Belgian capital to protest what they regard as overly extreme measures by the government to fight the COVID-19 pandemic, including a vaccine pass regulating access to certain places and activities and possible compulsory vaccines. (AP Photo/Geert Vanden Wijngaert)

BRUSSELS, Belgium — Police fired water cannons and thick clouds of tear gas in Brussels on Sunday to disperse demonstrators protesting against COVID-19 vaccinations and restrictions that aim to curb the fast-spreading omicron variant.

The protest drew thousands of people, some traveling from France, Germany and other countries to take part. Protesters yelled “Liberty!” as they marched. Demonstrators also marched in Barcelona.

The protests followed demonstrations in other European capitals on Saturday that also drew thousands of protesters against vaccine passports and other requirements that European governments have imposed as the omicron variant causes surging daily coronavirus infections and hospitalisations.

In Brussels, white-helmeted police riot officers repeatedly charged after protesters who ignored instructions to disperse. Police water cannon trucks fired powerful jets and snaking trails of gas filled the air in the Belgian capital.

A protest leader broadcasting over a loudspeaker yelled, “Come on people! Don't let them take away your rights” as police officers faced off against demonstrators who hurled projectiles and insults.

“Go to hell!" shouted one protester wearing a fake knight's helmet with a colorful quiff.

Some protesters harassed a video team covering the march for The Associated Press, pushing and threatening the journalists and damaging their video equipment. One protester kicked one of the journalists and another tried to punch him.

In downtown Barcelona, protesters wore costumes and waved banners reading “It’s not a pandemic, it’s a dictatorship,” as they marched against against restrictions imposed by both national and regional authorities to curb a surge in COVID-19 cases fueled by the omicron variant.

Participants included people rejecting vaccines and those who deny the existence or gravity of the virus that causes COVID-19. Few donned face masks, which are currently mandatory outdoors in Spain. Police said 1,100 people attended the demonstration.

Spain, a country of 47 million, has officially recorded over 9 million coronavirus cases, although the real number is believed to be much higher. Nearly 92,000 people have died in Spain since the beginning of the pandemic.

With over 80% of Spain's residents vaccinated, experts and authorities have credited the shots for having saved numerous lives and the total collapse of its public health system.