Canada police push back COVID protesters in bid to end siege

Canadian Protestors
Protestors gather near a police line in downtown Ottawa on Saturday, Feb. 19, 2022. Police arrested scores of demonstrators and towed away vehicles Friday in Canada's besieged capital, as streams of trucks started leaving under the pressure, raising authorities' hopes for an end to the three-week protest against the country's COVID-19 restrictions. (Cole Burston/The Canadian Press via AP)

OTTAWA, Ontario (AP) — Police resumed pushing back protesters on Saturday after arresting more than 100 and towing away vehicles in Canada’s besieged capital, and scores of trucks left under the pressure, raising authorities’ hopes for an end to the three-week protest against the country’s COVID-19 restrictions.

Police in tactical gear quickly gained ground Saturday on the second full day of one of the biggest police enforcement actions in Canada’s history, with officers drawn from around the country. Authorities towed trucks overnight in the areas police had already taken in Ottawa’s downtown core.

Authorities advanced to the front of the prime minister’s office and almost in front of Parliament Hill which has been occupied by trucks and protesters since late last month. Some police used pepper spray.

Ottawa police addressed the protesters in a tweet: “We told you to leave. We gave you time to leave. We were slow and methodical, yet you were assaultive and aggressive with officers and the horses. Based on your behavior, we are responding by including helmets and batons for our safety,”

Police said one protester launched a gas canister and was arrested as they advanced.

By Friday evening, at least 100 people had been arrested, mostly on mischief charges, and nearly two dozen vehicles had been towed, including all of those blocking one of the city’s major streets, authorities said. One officer had a minor injury, but no protesters were hurt, interim Ottawa Police Chief Steve Bell said.

Those arrested included four protest leaders. One received bail while the others remained jailed.

The crackdown on the self-styled Freedom Convoy began Friday morning, when hundreds of police, some in riot gear and some carrying automatic weapons, descended into the protest zone and began leading demonstrators away in handcuffs through the snowy streets as holdout truckers blared their horns.

The capital and its paralyzed streets represented the movement’s last stronghold after weeks of demonstrations and blockades that shut down border crossings into the U.S. and created one of the most serious tests yet for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. They also shook Canada’s reputation for civility, with some blaming America’s influence.

The Freedom Convoy demonstrations initially focused on Canada’s vaccine requirement for truckers entering the country but soon morphed into a broad attack on COVID-19 precautions and Trudeau’s government.

Ottawa residents complained of being harassed and intimidated by the truckers and obtained a court injunction to stop their incessant honking.

Trudeau portrayed the protesters as members of a “fringe” element. Canadians have largely embraced the country’s COVID-19 restrictions, with the vast majority vaccinated, including an estimated 90% of the nation’s truckers. Some of the vaccine and mask mandates imposed by the provinces are already falling away rapidly.

The biggest border blockade, at the Ambassador Bridge between Windsor, Ontario, and Detroit, disrupted the flow of auto parts between the two countries and forced the industry to curtail production. Authorities lifted the siege last weekend after arresting dozens of protesters.

The final border blockade, in Manitoba, across from North Dakota, ended peacefully on Wednesday.

The protests have been cheered on and received donations from conservatives in the U.S.

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Gillies reported from Toronto.