Clashes as tens of thousands protest against Covid rules in Belgium

Police use water cannon and tear gas on protesters who hurl paving stones and firecrackers

Police fired water cannon and tear gas on Sunday at stone-throwing protesters after tens of thousands of marched through Brussels against Covid-19 rules.

Authorities estimated that 50,000 people paraded through the Belgian capital in the largest protest in the city over the past months.

Clashes broke out close to the headquarters of the EU as police used water cannon and tear gas to push back hundreds of protesters who hurled paving stones and firecrackers.

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell condemned the "senseless destruction and violence" after masked attackers smashed a glass entrance at the offices of the bloc's diplomatic service.

Officers were later forced to seek shelter in a metro station as they were pelted with metal barriers.

Police said about 70 people were arrested, including a dozen for more serious offences such as throwing projectiles and damaging property.

Three officers and 12 demonstrators required hospital treatment, but none were in a life-threatening condition.

"Freedom of expression is one of the foundations of our society. Everyone is free to express their opinion," said Belgium's Prime Minister, Alexander De Croo.

"But our society will never accept indiscriminate violence, and even less towards our police forces. Those involved this Sunday will be prosecuted."

Brussels Mayor Philippe Close tweeted that it had been a "difficult day".

"Nothing can justify the physical attacks of which the police have been victims," Mr Close said.

Protesters carried signs condemning Mr De Croo and the Covid Safe pass required for entry into numerous venues.

Organisers including the World Wide Demonstration for Freedom and Europeans United for Freedom had called for people to come from other EU states.

Flags from Poland, the Netherlands, France and Romania were seen in the crowd.

"What has been happening since 2020 has allowed people to wake up to corruption," said Francesca Fanara, who had travelled from Lille in northern France. "I have come to march together."

"It's a health dictatorship," said Adolfo Barbosa from Portugal. "It warms the heart to see these people here."

Belgium has had daily infections surge to more than 60,000 in the past week in what authorities have called a "tsunami".

But the milder variant and high rate of vaccination – including people having a booster vaccination – means that health systems have not come under the same strain as in earlier waves.

Mr De Croo on Friday said that restaurants and bars could extend their opening hours, although nightclubs would remain closed.

Neighbouring France has said it will begin a gradual lifting of Covid restrictions from February 2 after authorities said there were "encouraging signs" that the wave of infections from the Omicron variant was ebbing.

Updated: January 24, 2022, 8:26 AM