Police officers detain a man, as truckers and supporters continue to protest coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccine mandates, in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada
Police, including some on horseback, pushed into crowds of demonstrators to clear them from the streets of downtown Ottawa on Friday, arresting more than 100 and hauling away vehicles that have been blocking the core of the capital for more than three weeks in a protest against pandemic restrictions.
Fearing escalation or violence, Ottawa police had sought to disperse them with fines and threats of possible arrest, but on Friday hundreds of them moved in despite the frigid temperature and freshly fallen snow, slowly clearing one part of the city.
There were tense moments during the day as some protesters were dragged from their vehicles, and others who resisted the police advance were thrown to the ground and had their hands zip-tied behind their backs.
The protesters showed "assaultive behaviour," forcing mounted police to move in "to create critical space" in the late afternoon, according to a police statement. As this happened, one person threw a bicycle at a horse and was arrested for harming a police service animal.
Dozens of trucks still occupy the downtown area, though fewer now because several left when the arrests began. Police have also arrested the three most prominent organizers, two on Thursday and one on Friday.
"We will run this operation 24 hours a day until the residents and community have their entire city back," Steve Bell, Ottawa's interim police chief, told reporters.
Officers set up 100 road blocks near the protest site to deny people access and starve them of food and fuel. Police said they had towed 21 vehicles on Friday.
Commenting on the arrest of its leaders, Freedom Convoy 2022, an umbrella group representing the protesters, said: "We will continue to hold the line. We refuse to bow to abuses of power. The world is watching, Canada."
After a night of heavy snow, protesters with shovels erected a chest-high snow bank on Wellington Street outside parliament and positioned themselves behind it as they waved Canadian flags and "Freedom Convoy" posters.
Police have been driving the protesters toward parliament, clearing territory along the way, but they still have not opened up the area in front of the House of Commons and below the prime minister's office.
Police are expected to work through the night, a government source said.
"If they want to arrest me, I'll put my hands out, and they can twist-tie me up like everybody else here. We're going peaceful," said Mark, a protester from Nova Scotia who would not give his last name.
'SHOW SOME SUPPORT'
The protesters initially wanted an end to cross-border COVID-19 vaccine mandates for truck drivers, but the blockade has gradually turned into an anti-government and anti-Prime Minister Justin Trudeau demonstration.
The protest has for weeks been non-violent, but on Friday protesters did shout and push against the police line, and there were brief scuffles. Video shared by Canadian media showed a young girl at the center of a tightly packed group of protesters facing off with dozens of officers.
"Protesters have put children between police operations and the unlawful protest site," Ottawa Police said on Twitter. "The children will be brought to a place of safety."
One teenage girl who was at the protest with her father and 12-year-old twin siblings said she had come to "show some support" for the truckers.
"Thank all you guys for fighting for mine and my brother and sister's freedom," said Emily McAuley, who is from a town 30 hours away from Ottawa by car.
Police say clearing the protests could take days. At least one military-style armored vehicle was seen in downtown Ottawa, and there were at least eight officers on horseback. Some police carried guns, and others what looked like tear gas launchers. No tear gas was used on Friday.
Trudeau on Monday invoked emergency powers to give his government wider authority to stop the protests. Legislators had been due to debate those temporary powers on Friday but the House of Commons suspended its session, citing police activity.
"If you are not in the House of Commons precinct, stay away from the downtown core until further notice," a House of Commons notice said.
Trudeau sought the special powers after protesters shut down U.S. border crossings including Ontario's Ambassador Bridge to Detroit, a choke point for the region's automakers. The shutdown of the bridge, which was cleared on Sunday, had damaged both countries' economies and posed a major crisis for Trudeau.
As police accelerated work to clear the protesters' last stronghold, at least a dozen tow trucks were working to remove trucks and other protest vehicles still parked downtown.
Many of the tow trucks had all identification marks removed. Before Trudeau invoked the Emergencies Act, police had said some tow truck drivers were afraid to cooperate with authorities, fearing they might be the target of retaliation.
Chrystia Freeland, Canada's deputy prime minister, told reporters that the protesters could not be allowed to undermine the government's authority.
"These illegal blockades and occupations will end, and they will end for good," Freeland said.
Additional reporting by David Ljunggren, Julie Gordon, Blair Gable, Lars Hagberg and Kyaw Soe Oo; Writing by Rami Ayyub; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama, Mark Porter and Sandra Maler