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Tuesday January 18th, 2022 5:08AM

Protests erupt over virus limits in Austria, Italy, Croatia

By The Associated Press
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VIENNA (AP) — Tens of thousands of protesters, many from far-right groups, marched through Vienna on Saturday after the Austrian government announced a nationwide lockdown beginning Monday to contain skyrocketing coronavirus infections.

Demonstrations against virus restrictions also took place in Switzerland, Croatia, Italy, Northern Ireland and the Netherlands on Saturday, a day after Dutch police opened fire on protesters and seven people were injured in rioting that erupted in Rotterdam. Protesters rallied against coronavirus restrictions and mandatory COVID-19 passes needed in many European countries to enter restaurants, Christmas markets or sports events, as well as mandatory vaccinations.

The Austrian lockdown will start Monday and comes as average daily deaths have tripled in recent weeks and hospitals in heavily hit states have warned that intensive care units are reaching capacity. The lockdown will last at least 10 days but could go up to 20, officials said. People will be able to leave their homes only for specific reasons, including buying groceries, going to the doctor or exercising.

The government also will make vaccinations mandatory starting Feb. 1. Not quite 66% of Austria’s 8.9 million people are fully vaccinated, one of the lowest rates in Western Europe.

Saturday's march started off at Vienna’s massive Heldenplatz square. Chanting “Resistance!” and blowing whistles, protesters moved down the city’s inner ring road. Many waved Austrian flags and carried signs mocking Chancellor Alexander Schallenberg and Health Minister Wolfgang Mueckstein. Some wore doctor’s scrubs; others donned tinfoil hats. Most signs focused on the vaccine mandate: “My Body, My Choice,” read one. “We’re Standing Up for Our Kids!” said another.

Among those protesting were members of far-right and extreme-right parties and groups, including the far-right Freedom Party, the anti-vaccine MFG party and the extreme-right Identitarians.

About 1,300 police officers were on duty, and 35,000 protesters participated in different marches across the city, police said. Police said several protesters were detained, but didn’t give specific numbers. Later Saturday night, protesters threw bottles and beer cans and fired pyrotechnics at police, who then used pepper spray to disperse the crowds.

Freedom Party leader Herbert Kickl, who recently tested positive for COVID-19, appeared via video, denouncing what he called “totalitarian” measures from a government “that believes it should think and decide for us.”

Schallenberg apologized to all vaccinated people on Friday, saying it wasn't fair they had to suffer under the renewed lockdown restrictions.

“I’m sorry to take this drastic step,” he said on public broadcaster ORF.

In neighboring Switzerland, 2,000 people protested an upcoming referendum on whether to approve the government’s COVID-19 restrictions law, claiming it was discriminatory, public broadcaster SRF reported.

A day after the Rotterdam rioting, thousands gathered on Amsterdam’s central Dam Square, despite organizers calling off the protest. They walked peacefully through the streets, closely monitored by police.

“This policy (anti coronavirus measures) makes a lot of conflicts between the people," Hugo Gietelink from Amsterdam told The Associated Press. “I think it is very important that the vaccinated and non-vaccinated have to make a friendship again.”

A few hundred people also marched through the southern Dutch city of Breda. One organizer, Joost Eras, told broadcaster NOS he didn’t expect violence after consulting with police.

“We certainly don’t support what happened in Rotterdam. We were shocked by it,” he said.

In Italy, 3,000 turned out in the capital's Circus Maximus, a field where in ancient times Romans staged popular entertainment, to protest against “Green Pass” certificates required at workplaces, restaurants, cinemas, theaters, sports venues and gyms, as well as for long-distance train, bus or ferry travel.

“People like us never give up,” read one banner, in the red, white and green colors of the Italian flag. Almost no one wore a protective mask.

In Northern Ireland, several hundred people opposed to vaccine passports protested outside the city hall in Belfast, where the city’s Christmas market opened Saturday -- a market where proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test was required.

The Northern Ireland government voted this week to introduce vaccine certificates for admission to nightclubs, bars and restaurants starting Dec. 13.

Some protesters carried signs that have been widely criticized as offensive, comparing coronavirus restrictions to the actions of Nazi Germany.

In Croatia, thousands gathered in the capital of Zagreb, carrying flags, nationalist and religious symbols, along with banners against vaccination and what they describe as restrictions of people’s freedoms.

In France, Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin condemned violent protests in the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe, one of France’s overseas territories. Darmanin said 29 people had been detained by police overnight. Authorities were sending 200 more police officers to the island and on Tuesday will impose a nightly curfew from 6 p.m. to 5 a.m.

Protesters in Guadeloupe have staged road blockades and set cars on fire. They denounce France's COVID-19 health pass that is required to access restaurants and cafes, cultural venues, sport arenas and long-distance travel. They are also protesting France's mandatory vaccinations for health care workers.

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AP reporters from across Europe contributed reporting.

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Follow AP’s pandemic coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-pandemic

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