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Police clear protesters around Canada's Parliament building

Police push protesters back on Saturday in Ottawa, the Canadian capital. After making more than 100 arrests on Friday, police resumed their work to clear the protesters who oppose many of Canada's COVID-19 restrictions.
Dave Chan
AFP via Getty Images
Police push protesters back on Saturday in Ottawa, the Canadian capital. After making more than 100 arrests on Friday, police resumed their work to clear the protesters who oppose many of Canada's COVID-19 restrictions.

Updated February 19, 2022 at 10:21 PM ET

Police in Ottawa continued their push to clear protesters from the streets of Canada's capital Saturday after three weeks of demonstrations against the country's COVID-19 restrictions.

By evening, it appeared that the heart of the protests, the street in front of the country's Parliament buildings, was clear, according to the CBC.

After making more than 100 arrests on Friday, interim Ottawa Police Chief Steve Bell said 47 more arrests were made on Saturday and that the total stands at 170. The police department also said 53 vehicles had been towed and 22 license plates seized.

"Today we made some very important progress in safely removing this unlawful protest from our streets," Bell said on Saturday. "At every step in this operation we've been upfront and clear with the unlawful protesters that they must leave the area. We've advised them of our enforcement efforts so they could continue to make informed decisions. We've backed up those warnings with a deliberate and methodical operation using lawful and safe tactics."

Bell said some protesters were leaving the Parliament area and were moving into surrounding neighborhoods, but he promised they would be cleared from those as well.

Protesters were urged to leave before police stepped in

The clearing began Friday after Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau invoked the country's Emergencies Act earlier in the week. Doing this gave the government authority to "restore order" to the streets that the protest movement known as the Freedom Convoy were blocking.

Ahead of Saturday's second push, the Ottawa Police Department encouraged people remaining to leave and said officers would be wearing helmets and carrying batons as a result of the resistance they saw on Friday.

"We told you to leave. We gave you time to leave. We were slow and methodical, yet you were assaultive and aggressive with officers and the horses," Ottawa police said on Twitter Saturday morning. "Based on your behaviour, we are responding by including helmets and batons for our safety."

Bell acknowledged that in addition to the escalation in what the officers were wearing there was at least one instance when pepper spray was used against protesters who Bell says were resisting the officers.

Questions raised over possible excessive force

The level of force used by the officers has come under scrutiny after videos surfaced on social media said to be showing what many considered to be excessive force.

In a statement, the Freedom Convoy organizers characterized the actions as "brutality" by the officers.

"We have therefore asked our truckers to move from Parliament Hill to avoid further brutality," the statement said. "To move the trucks it will require time. This has been communicated with Ottawa police and we hope that they will show judicious restrain."

Bell said he hadn't seen the videos in question and any allegations of made will be reviewed.

"We will absolutely be involved in reviewing arrests to make sure that the lawful amount of force was used as we executed our mission," he said.

The clearing isn't over yet

Police have continued to urge protesters to leave the area peacefully, but Bell acknowledged that police footage taken during the clearing of the demonstrators will be used in the continuing investigation to identify people.

"If you are involved in this protest, we will actively look to identify you and follow up with financial sanctions and criminal charges. Absolutely," Bell said. "This investigation will go on for months to come."

The protests, which began as opposition to a vaccine mandate for truckers entering Canada, have spread and morphed into a larger anti-COVID restrictions movement.

Protesters also blocked the Ambassador Bridge between Windsor, Ontario, and Detroit for a week until it was cleared on Feb. 13, disrupting millions of dollars worth of trade. Another group blocked the border between Emerson, Manitoba, and Pembina, N.D. until protesters left without arrests on Wednesday. And on Saturday, Canadian police said access to the Pacific Highway border crossing, which connects Surrey, British Columbia, to Blaine, Wash., was closed due to protests.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Wynne Davis is a digital reporter and producer for NPR's All Things Considered.