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Germany slams attempt to storm Reichstag after COVID-19 protest

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Police officers push away a crowd of demonstrators from the square 'Platz der Republik' in front of the Reichstag building.
Police officers push away a crowd of demonstrators from the square 'Platz der Republik' in front of the Reichstag building.   -   Copyright  Christoph Soeder/dpa via AP
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German politicians on Sunday slammed an "unacceptable" attempt to storm the Reichstag parliament building after a mass protest in Berlin against coronavirus measures.

Police said several hundred protesters, some far-right supporters, broke into through barriers and a police cordon to climb the steps leading to the entrance to the Reichstag on Saturday.

“Stones and bottles were thrown at our colleagues,” police said, adding that "force had to be used to push them back.”

They were narrowly prevented from entering the building by police, who used pepper spray and arrested several people.

The Reichstag is the "symbolic centre of our democracy", Interior Minister Horst Seehofer told Sunday's edition of the Bild newspaper.

"It is unacceptable to see extremists and trouble-makers use it for their own ends."

The Reichstag symbol

It is the parliament building where German deputies meet and was burnt down by the Nazis in 1933 in an act aimed at destroying what remained of German democracy between the two world wars.

"Plurality of opinions" is a "characteristic of the good functioning of society," said Seehofer.

But "freedom of assembly reaches its limits when public rules are trampled on."'

Anti-Covid' march

Police in Berlin disbanded an earlier protest against coronavirus curbs on Saturday and arrested 300 people after demonstrators failed to social distance and wear masks, as other European cities held similar "anti-COVID" marches.

Some 38,000 protesters turned out for the Berlin rally.

Some demonstrators waved German flags and shouted "Merkel must go!", a chant often used by the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party.

Several others carried the flag of the German Reich which was used up until 1919.

"To see the flags of the Empire in front of the parliament is shameful," tweeted Foreign Minister Heiko Maas.

The protest was ended just several hours before it started.

"Unfortunately, we have no other option," Berlin police said on Twitter. "All the measures taken so far have not led to compliance with the conditions."

Kay Nietfeld/DPA via AP
police take vegan chef Attila Hildmann into custody during a demonstration against COVID-19 measures, in Berlin, Germany, Saturday, Aug. 29, 2020Kay Nietfeld/DPA via AP

"We're here to say: we have to be careful! Coronavirus crisis or not, we must defend our freedoms," Christina Holz, a 22-year-old student, told AFP.

'Anti-COVID' protests across Europe

With new coronavirus cases rising since lockdown measures were lifted several months ago, European countries have implemented tighter regulations to contain the outbreak that has killed more than 800,000 globally.

In London, around 1,000 demonstrators calling for an "end to medical tyranny" gathered in Trafalgar Square.

Yui Mok/Press Association
Protesters opposed to COVID-19 pandemic restrictions in Trafalgar Square, London.Yui Mok/Press Association

In Paris, up to 300 protesters marched against the government decision to make mask wearing compulsory in all public areas.

"I am simply a citizen angry against the freedom restricting measures which have no medical justification," said Sophie, a Parisian who took part in the protest.

Kamil Zihnioglu/Copyright 2020 The Associated Press.
Hundreds in Paris protested against new obligatory mask wearing rules.Kamil Zihnioglu/Copyright 2020 The Associated Press.

Protesters in the French capital, some waving placards stating "Stop the lies", were quickly surrounded by police who handed out 135 euro fines to those not wearing masks.

Some 1,000 people in the Swiss city of Zurich also called for a "return to freedom".

Berlin authorities previously banned the demonstration, fearing protesters would not carry out social distancing requirements or wear face masks.

Protest organisers and supporters were outraged by the move and flooded social media with messages they would protest anyway, with some calling for violence.

But on Friday evening, Berlin's administrative court sided with the demonstrators, saying there was no indication that organisers would "deliberately ignore" social distancing rules and endanger public health.

Via AP- Kay Nietfeld/(c) Copyright 2020, dpa
Around 3,000 officers have been deployed to ensure protesters respect coronavirus measures.Via AP- Kay Nietfeld/(c) Copyright 2020, dpa

The far-right welcomed Friday's court ruling. Leif-Erik Holm, a lawmaker for the anti-migrant AfD party, called the decision to overturn the protest ban "a victory for freedom".

"I am not a far-right sympathiser, I'm here to defend our fundamental freedoms," said Stefan, a 43-year-old protester at the start of the demonstration.

Counter-protests

But several groups held counter-protests against the main demonstration.

"There must be no tolerance towards racists, anti-Semites, right-wing extremists and Nazis," said left-wing MP Anne Helm.

"That is why I call on all Berliners to take part in the counter-events."

'Take it seriously'

The "anti-corona" rally comes as Chancellor Angela Merkel announced tougher coronavirus measures as the country reports an uptick in cases since April.

On Friday, Germany announced a minimum €50 fine for people caught not wearing face masks where it is compulsory.

Kay Nietfeld/ dpa via AP
Protesters held signs with pictures of Chancellor Angela Merkel, reading 'guilty'.Kay Nietfeld/ dpa via AP

"We will have to live with this virus for a long time to come. It is still serious. Please continue to take it seriously," Merkel said.

Meanwhile France said on Friday there had been an "exponential" rise in coronavirus cases with more than 7,000 new infections in 24 hours.