Minor scuffles broke out and dozens were arrested as baton-wielding Canadian police cleared protesters from the capital Ottawa on Saturday in a bid to end weekslong protests against COVID-19 limitations and the government.
Seizing trucks and finally retaking control of the streets in front of the country's Parliament buildings, police said they used chemical sprays on several people who had pushed back aggressively at officers.
"Protesters continue to be aggressive and assaultive on officers," Ottawa police tweeted. "They are refusing to comply with the orders to move. You will have seen officers use a chemical irritant in an effort to stop the assaultive behavior and for officer safety."
After clearing a portion of the blockade and making more than 100 arrests on Friday, 47 more arrests were made on Saturday morning as police moved quickly to disperse the main portion of the blockade in front of parliament and the prime minister's office.
Police also used loud speakers to warn the crowd to disperse or face arrest. Some of those arrested on Saturday wore body armor and had smoke grenades and other fireworks in their bags and vehicles, police said. Again on Saturday, officers smashed vehicle windows to arrest people locked inside, but the overall number of protesters has dwindled dramatically compared with previous days, with a couple hundred remaining near the advancing police cordon.
Some loud bangs of stun grenades were heard, and Reuters witnesses saw some people being pepper-sprayed. Protesters were throwing smoke canisters, police said. Several large trucks that have been parked in front of parliament for weeks drove away as the police approached their position.
No tear gas has been used, police said.
Many of the main organizers have been taken into custody, and some have reportedly left. Accused of being heavy-handed by the protesters, especially when sending in Canada's fearsome horse-mounted police, known as the Mounties, officials said there had been no serious injuries.
"We hear your concern for people on the ground after the horses dispersed a crowd. Anyone who fell got up and walked away. We're unaware of any injuries," police said on Twitter.
The street in front of Parliament Hill, the collection of government offices that includes the Parliament buildings, was the heart of the protests. It had been occupied by protesters and their trucks since late last month, turning into a carnival on weekends.
"They are trying to push us all away,” said one protester, Jeremy Glass of Shelburne, Ontario, as authorities forced the crowds to move further from the Parliament building. "The main camp is seized now. We’re no longer in possession of it.”
Canadian authorities also announced they had used emergency powers to seize 76 bank accounts connected to protesters, totaling roughly $3.2 million ($2.5 million).
On Saturday, they also closed a bridge into the nation’s capital from Quebec to prevent a renewed influx of protesters.
Around midday, protest organizers said they had ordered truckers to move away from Parliament Hill, decrying the police's actions as "abuses of power.”
"To move the trucks will require time,” organizers said in a statement. "We hope that (police) will show judicious restraint."
Earlier, 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. 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 United States 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.
The federal government said on Saturday it would provide up to C$20 million to Ottawa businesses that have suffered losses due to the blockades.
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, including former President Donald Trump.
Tesla Inc.'s chief executive Elon Musk also expressed support for protesters on Saturday, replying on Twitter to a woman asking him to help the protesters.
"I wish I could help. At this point, it seems that voting at the next election is the remedy," Musk replied.
After the protest crowds swelled on the three previous weekends, police set up 100 road blocks around the downtown core on Friday to deny people access and prevent food and fuel from getting in.
"Our demands aren't ridiculous. We want mandates and lockdowns dropped," said a truck driver from Manitoba who gave his name only as Gord, adding that he cannot work anymore because of cross-border vaccine mandates.