Police in Canada moved Friday to dislodge the final truckers and protesters from downtown Ottawa, in a mostly peaceful operation aimed at bringing an end to three weeks of demonstrations over Covid-19 health rules.
Deployed by the hundreds, the police said they made more than 100 arrests and towed approximately 20 vehicles.
The announcement came some 10 hours after the operation began — an affair that involved long standoffs with the protesters who have been choking the capital’s streets by the hundreds for three weeks, including using their big rig trucks.
No clashes or injuries were reported and Ottawa interim police chief Steve Bell said the operation was going as planned but would take time.
By early evening, many protester vehicles remained downtown but multiple truckers who had blocked the streets surrounding Parliament had removed their 18-wheelers.
Authorities continued to warn demonstrators to go: “You must leave. You must cease further unlawful activity and immediately remove your vehicle and/or property from all unlawful protest sites,” the Ottawa Police tweeted, warning of possible arrests.
Throughout the day, heavily armed officers — including on horseback — lined up against protesters who locked arms, advancing slowly and methodically to push back the spirited crowd.
An AFP journalist saw several demonstrators led away in handcuffs as police and tow trucks moved in, although most simply surrendered.
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.
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 –
Most of the protest’s leaders have been arrested. Far-right activist Pat King was taken into custody early Friday afternoon as he left town, with his apprehension broadcast as he livestreamed on Facebook.
Two other leaders, Tamara Lich and Chris Barber, were arrested Thursday evening.
Lich, 49, was heard telling truckers as she was being led away by police to “hold the line.”
The movement’s Twitter account was still rallying supporters earlier on Friday: “If you disagree with unlawful and unprecedented government overreach, drop whatever you are doing, and make your voice heard” it said.
Lawmakers Friday took the extraordinary move of canceling a parliamentary session. Speaker of the House Anthony Rota cited an “ever-changing” situation in the streets outside the seat of Canada’s democracy.
– 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.
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 also 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 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.