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Clashes renewed as New Zealand police move to break up anti-vaccine blockade

Wearing riot gear and using pepper spray, New Zealand police on Wednesday moved in on the hundreds of protesters who have been camped outside the nation's Parliament, with Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern declaring she was "deeply saddened" by the vandalism of some protesters.

Protesters had set up camps, parked vehicles outside country's Parliament grounds

Wearing riot gear and using pepper spray, New Zealand police on Wednesday moved in on the hundreds of protesters who have been camped outside the nation's Parliament, demonstrating against coronavirus vaccine mandates.

It appeared to be a final act of defiance as police broke up the camp that protesters first set up more than three weeks ago. Police retook control of the Parliament grounds although dozens of protesters remained in nearby streets, some hurling objects at officers. Parliament's once carefully manicured grounds were left scarred, a children's slide in ruins.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said that in planning the operation, police had expected hostility, resistance and violence — but it was another thing entirely to witness it.

"I was both angry and also deeply saddened. To see the Parliament — your Parliament, our Parliament — desecrated in that way, and a children's playground destroyed, by a small group of illegal protesters," Ardern said. "But, as I say, it's not something that will define New Zealand's response to this pandemic."

It was the most significant use of force yet by authorities against the protesters, who oppose coronavirus vaccine mandates.

Protesters said in a statement they were united in wanting mandates dropped and to make their own informed choices regarding their health, free from coercion and punishment. They said the vast majority of protesters had been well-behaved and had chosen to camp as a last resort after other options for dialogue were quashed.

The operation began at dawn, when police started telling people over loudspeakers they were trespassing and needed to leave, while officers tore down tents in peripheral areas and a police helicopter circled overhead. Some protesters confronted police and used milk to try and clear their eyes from pepper spray, while others set fire to tents, mattresses and chairs.

Police also began towing some of the 300 or so cars, vans and trucks that protesters have used to block streets in the area. The convoy demonstration was inspired by similar protests in Canada and has sparked other protests around New Zealand.

Police Commissioner Andrew Coster told reporters they had brought in several hundred additional officers from around the country for the operation, which would continue until all the vehicles and tents were gone. He declined to put a timeline on how long that would take.

Coster said some protesters had sprayed fire extinguishers and thrown paint at officers as they advanced, while others had used makeshift shields and barricades. He said a laser pointer was aimed at the police helicopter.

The commissioner said that by mid-morning, 36 protesters had been arrested for trespassing, obstruction and other offences. He said three officers had suffered minor injuries and 15 vehicles had been towed.

Coster said officers decided to move in because previously constructive talks with protest leaders weren't progressing and many genuine protesters had left and been replaced by people more intent on violent confrontation.

"I was very clear of our approach, which was to de-escalate. There is no interest from anyone here of turning this into a fight," he said. "However, this protest has tipped over a balance and it now needs to end."

Lawmakers refuse to meet protesters

In a statement, protesters said they were united in wanting mandates dropped and to make their own informed choices regarding their health, free from coercion and punishment.

They said the vast majority of protesters had been well-behaved and had chosen to camp as a last resort after other options for dialogue were quashed.

The protests have led to a more charged political atmosphere across New Zealand. Ardern's security detail has been increased after protesters heckled her at events, including as she was leaving a school visit in Christchurch last week.

Lawmakers across all parties have refused to meet with the protesters.

Police detain a demonstrator in Wellington, New Zealand on Tuesday. (Dave Lintott/AFP/Getty Images)

Last week one protester drove a car toward a police line, narrowly avoiding officers, and police said some of the protesters had thrown human feces at them.

Before Wednesday's operation, police had arrested 132 protesters and laid various charges against some of them.

Protesters have been well organized, setting up tents on the lawns outside Parliament and trucking in portable toilets, crates of donated food and bales of straw to lay down when the grass turned to mud.

Tents set up by protesters are seen near parliament grounds in Wellington Tuesday. Later, protesters were told they were trespassing and needed to leave as officers tore down tents. (Dave Lintott/AFP/Getty Images)

They even dug a vegetable garden, set up a day care tent, and assembled makeshift showers as they signalled their intent to stay for a long time.

At one point, a Parliamentarian blasted Barry Manilow songs in a failed effort to make them leave.

Biggest outbreak so far

New Zealand is experiencing its biggest COVID-19 outbreak since the pandemic began as the Omicron variant spreads. On Tuesday, health authorities reported a record of nearly 20,000 new daily cases.

Ardern has said she plans to begin easing virus mandates and restrictions after the peak of the Omicron outbreak has passed.

About 77 per cent of New Zealand's population is vaccinated with two doses.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, New Zealand has reported fewer than 100 virus deaths among its population of five million, after it imposed strict border controls and lockdowns to eliminate earlier outbreaks.

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