BRUSSELS (AP) — Police and hundreds of yellow jacket protesters upset over high taxes and living costs clashed Friday in Brussels. Dozens were detained as the grassroots movement that started in France two weeks ago gained traction in Belgium.
Riot police fired tear gas and water cannons on protesters, who threw rocks and paving stones after they were blocked from approaching government buildings and offices in Brussels.
“Our officers started to use water cannons after they began throwing objects. They were throwing pool balls,” said Brussels city police spokeswoman Ilse Van De Keere, estimating that over 300 people were involved in the clashes.
A riot police cordon charged protesters after they attacked two police vehicles, overturning one and setting both alight. Road signs were uprooted and traffic lights smashed.
Around 60 people were charged with disturbing public order. Many were carrying objects that police considered to be dangerous, including razor blades, tire levers and pepper spray, she said. Some were detained for having gas, ski and diving masks.
The Brussels prosecutors’ office said one person was detained for carrying a weapon and a second for willfully causing damage, while a third was being questioned by police over alleged drug offenses. It said an investigation has been opened into the torching of the police vehicles.
Prime Minister Charles Michel tweeted: “all my support to forces of law and order which ensure our safety and guarantee our freedom. No impunity for the inadmissible violence in Brussels. Thugs and pillagers should be punished.”
His interior minister, Jan Jambon, lamented in a tweet what he described as “incomprehensible violence toward the police, which does its best to protect citizens and society. Scandalous.”
Earlier, dozens of protesters wearing the movement’s high visibility vests blocked city streets, sometimes with pieces of scaffolding, causing traffic chaos along major roads. Some handed out vests to bystanders and people stuck in cars.
As they marched, some protesters chanted “We are the people!” and held up placards marked: “Union is Strength” and “Shame on the Police.”
Michel has said he is willing to talk with some of their leaders, but it was not immediately clear whether any meeting had taken place.
Protest roadblocks were also in place near the city of Charleroi, 60 kilometers (38 miles) south of Brussels.
It’s unclear exactly who the protesters are. Small rallies and roadblocks have been going on in the French-speaking south of Belgium for about two weeks. Some appeared linked to high fuel prices, seen as the cause of the protest movement in neighboring France.
Belgian media say many are out in the streets over high taxes and food prices, low wages and pensions, but some question whether the movement is being exploited by far-left and far-right groups.