Berlin halts 'anti-corona' rally as European cities protest masks
German police halted a Berlin march by thousands of people opposed to coronavirus restrictions in the biggest of several European protests Saturday against anti-virus curbs and masks to halt the pandemic.
With new COVID-19 cases on the rise, European nations are starting to tighten controls while trying to avoid the major lockdowns imposed earlier this year to contain the outbreak that has killed more than 800,000 people worldwide.
Across the globe, governments are struggling to revive battered economies while managing public frustration over new restrictions and masks to curb infections.
In Germany, around 18,000 people massed in Berlin's iconic Brandenburg Gate, before the rally was forced to stop due to a police injunction because many were not respecting social distancing measures.
The demonstration had initially been allowed to go ahead after a bitter legal battle.
"The minimum distancing is not being respected by most (of the demonstrators) despite repeated requests," the police said. "There is no other option than to break up the gathering."
Several thousands stayed on to protest after the announcement, chanting "resistance" and a small group clashed with police, tossing bottles and rocks, leading to around 300 arrests.
The city's interior minister Andreas Geisel said around 200 of the arrests took place in front of the Russian embassy, but most of those detained were subsequently released.
Protesters waved German flags and shouted "Merkel must go!", a chant often used by the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party against Chancellor Angela Merkel.
"I'm not an extreme right-wing sympathiser, I'm here to defend our fundamental freedoms," said Stefan, a 43-year-old Berlin resident with a shaved head and a T-shirt with the words "Thinking helps" written in large print.
- 'Stop the lies' -
About 1,000 anti-mask protesters also gathered in the Swiss city of Zurich and a similar number demonstrated in London at Trafalgar Square, many holding home-made banners.
One called for an "End to medical tyranny"; another read "No to mandatory vaccines" while one man waved a placard declaring "Masks are muzzles".
Around 300 people protested peacefully in Paris to denounce the government's decision to make masks obligatory in all public places as cases rise in the French capital.
Protesters, some waving placards stating "Stop the lies", were quickly surrounded by police who handed out 135 euro ($160) fines to those not wearing masks.
"There is no scientific proof of the usefulness of wearing a mask outside," said Anais, a sociology student.
"COVID-19 is not so dangerous, it mainly kills people over the age of 60."
- 'Anti-Corona' -
The pandemic has killed more than 839,000 people worldwide since surfacing in China late last year, and more than 24.8 million cases have been registered. The United States has recorded the highest number of deaths with 181,779.
US President Donald Trump and Brazil's Jair Bolsonaro were among global leaders who initially played down the gravity of the pandemic, while others have dismissed the need for social distancing measures.
Many governments now hope tighter mask rules will offset the need for a return to economically-devastating lockdowns, though the French government said it could not rule out new stay-at-home orders.
France on Saturday said there had been 5,400 new coronavirus cases in the past 24 hours following over 7,400 registered on Friday.
That did not stop several hundred young party-goers holding an illegal rave in the centre of the country, defying a ban on such events.
Police were out in force and made some arrests but did not forcibly evacuate the youngsters.
Saturday's Berlin rally came as coronavirus cases continue to rise in Germany, with daily new infection numbers reaching highs not seen since April.
At the start of August, a similar German "anti-corona" march in Berlin took place with 20,000 protesters, a mix of the extreme left and right, anti-vaccination campaigners, conspiracy theorists and self-described "free thinkers".
"We will have to live with this virus for a long time to come," Merkel warned. "It is still serious. Please continue to take it seriously."