Canadian police on Friday began a massive operation in Ottawa to clear trucker-led protests against Covid rules, with demonstrators arrested and vehicles towed away after a three- week blockade.
Hundreds of heavily armed officers — including on horseback — lined up against protesters who locked arms in the capital’s downtown at the start of a gradual clearance process that could take days.
Police advanced slowly and methodically, pushing back the protesters.
An AFP journalist saw several demonstrators led away in handcuffs as police and tow trucks moved in.
A few demonstrators were wrestled to the ground, and at least one who refused to exit his truck had his windows smashed and was dragged out by police.
“Some protesters are surrendering and are being arrested,” Ottawa police tweeted.
“You must leave,” they warned the crowds, telling them “you will face severe penalties if you do not cease further unlawful activity and remove your vehicle.”
Demonstrators appeared to dig in after heavy snowfall, playing cheerful music and waving Canadian flags on hockey sticks. A bouncy castle was set up and and a pig roast held in the street.
The so-called “Freedom Convoy” started with truckers protesting against mandatory Covid vaccines to cross the US border, but its demands have grown to include an end to all pandemic rules and, for many, a wider anti-establishment agenda.
At its peak, the movement also included blockades of US-Canada border crossings including a key trade route across a bridge between Ontario and Detroit, Michigan — all of which have been lifted after costing the economy billions of dollars, according to the government.
– Leaders arrested –
Overnight two protest leaders were arrested and charged with mischief and counselling others to break the law.
One of them, Tamara Lich, 49, was heard telling truckers as she was being led away by police to “hold the line.”
On Friday, a third protest leader was stopped in his car as he was live-streaming on social media.
Convoy organizers tweeted for supporters to “drop whatever you are doing, and make your voice heard” by coming to the capital.
Earlier, lawmakers took the extraordinary move to cancel a parliamentary session. Speaker of the House Anthony Rota cited an “ever-changing” situation in the streets outside the seat of Canada’s democracy.
Government workers and MPs were asked to stay away, while anyone already in the parliamentary precinct were urged to shelter indoors.
– Final warning –
Police on Thursday had given protesters a final warning to leave, as barricades went up to restrict access to the downtown protest zone and surrounding neighborhoods — encompassing more than 500 acres (200 hectares).
Criticized for failing to act decisively to end the protests, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau this week invoked the Emergencies Act, which gives the government sweeping powers to deal with a major crisis.
It’s only the second time such powers have been invoked in peacetime.
Lawmakers, split over the move with only a small leftist party backing Trudeau’s minority Liberal government, were debating its use when parliament was hastily shuttered.
New Democratic Party leader Jagmeet Singh told the Commons on Thursday that the protesters were “brazenly” trying to overthrow the government.
Conservative MPs accused the government of using a “sledgehammer to crack down on dissent.”
Trudeau has said the act was not being used to call in the military against the protesters, and denied restricting freedom of expression.
The objective was simply to “deal with the current threat and to get the situation fully under control,” he said. “Illegal blockades and occupations are not peaceful protests.”
Police this week arrested dozens of protesters at border crossings, including four people charged with conspiracy to murder police officers at a checkpoint between Coutts, Alberta and Sweet Grass, Montana.
They also seized dozens of vehicles, as well as a cache of weapons that included rifles, handguns, body armor and ammunition.
Authorities also froze the bank accounts of protesters and chocked off crowdfunding and cryptocurrency transactions supporting the truckers.