Here’s a dispatch from Robert Tait in Prague:
Czech police have fired tear gas and water cannon in the heart of Prague’s historic tourist district after demonstrations against stringent anti-Covid restrictions turned violent.
Riot officers flooded into the Czech capital’s landmark Old Town Square with horses and armoured vehicles after protestors among an estimated crowd of 2,000 hurled missiles, including beer bottles, cans and bicycles, and set off fire-crackers at the end of an hour-long rally.
Local ambulance services reported around 20 injuries on each side.
Police carried out several arrests, including 16 before the rally, when they said weapons including a firearm were confiscated.
Sunday’s rally was organised by so-called ultra football and ice-hockey fans angry at the increasingly strict limitations introduced in response to the soaring number of Covid-19 cases in the Czech Republic, currently the worst-hit in Europe by the global pandemic by head of population.
It took place after the country of 10.7 million documented a record 11,105 cases on Friday and another 8,713 on Saturday – an all-time high for a weekend, when fewer tests are conducted.
The protest coincided with the start of work by Czech soldiers on an emergency field hospital on the outskirts of Prague, which officials say is needed because the soaring case load has stretched the health service to its capacity.
Nevertheless, protestors denounced the recent restrictions that have included controls on organised sport – with fixtures played behind closed doors and teams forbidden to train en masse – and the closure of pubs and restaurants.
Several carried placards denouncing “fascism” and leading Czech politicians, including prime minister, Andrej Babis and Roman Prymula, the new health minister – and a qualified epidemiologist – who has spearheaded the latest measures to counteract the virus.
Few among the crowd – which police said exceeded the maximum of 500 allowed for such events during the current state of emergency launched this month – worse masks and there was little evidence of social distancing. Many drank alcohol.
As demonstrators refused to disperse, police sealed off exit routes from the square and sent in an armoured vehicle that fired high-powered water jets at groups of protesters congregating next to the 600-year-old astronomical clock – a site more accustomed to gatherings of gawking crowds of international tourists before the current pandemic decimated the local tourism industry.
Sunday’s clashes followed similar scenes on Saturday in the Slovak capital, Bratislava, where protesters tried to storm the government quarters.