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Zurich police quell riots after May Day rally

A masked protestor in Zurich fires a stone from a catapult during the May Day demonstrations Keystone

Police in Zurich have clashed with anti-capitalist protesters, following the city's annual rally to mark Labour Day. But a massive police presence prevented a repeat of last year's riots.

This content was published on May 2, 2001 - 09:07

Violence broke out towards the end of the official May Day celebrations, when a crowd of some 500 protesters with their faces covered scuffled with police.

The protesters came up against hundreds of heavily armed police, who quickly dispersed the demonstrations using rubber bullets, tear gas and water cannon. They made more than 200 arrests during the course of the day.

Five police officers were slightly injured and a child was taken to hospital after being hit by a stone thrown by the protestors. There are no reports of any injuries to the demonstrators.

The Zurich authorities had been prepared for violence after riots last year, when six police officers were injured and 40 demonstrators were arrested.

As in previous years, radical demonstrators began their unofficial May Day protests as soon as proceedings at the trade union organised events ended. To the blaring sound of rock music coming from speakers mounted on a lorry, young protesters donned black masks and began shouting: "Forward with international solidarity!".

But unlike in previous years, organisers and the city authorities had agreed to stage the official event in front of Zurich's main railway station - 500 metres away from the park where a traditional May Day festival, celebrating immigrants' cultures, gets underway once the political speeches have ended.

The additional distance allowed the police to contain the roughly 500 radical protesters, dubbed the "black block" because of their anarchist-style clothing.

As radical protesters marched towards the festival park, throwing stones, fireworks and dye-filled bags, police quickly cordoned off several streets and bridges. Most of the protesters were caught in half a dozen areas between a shallow river, the Sihl, and adjoining streets.

Police also used water cannon, teargas and rubber bullets against rioters outside the areas of containment, and against those who tried to break out to re-join the parade at the festival park. In previous years, the rioters had used the festival with its thousands of visitors and bystanders as a way to escape confrontations with police.

Some peaceful marchers in the May Day parade complained that they were caught up alongside rioters by what they denounced as "brutal" police tactics.

"Nothing happened, the rioters were quiet, but suddenly I found myself boxed in", complained a 20-year-old student, who didn't want to give his name. He escaped by wading through the Sihl, just before police cordoned the river off, too.

By mid-afternoon, police had arrested nearly 100 protesters - more than twice the number arrested throughout May Day of last year. "The situation seems under control," a police spokesman, Hanspeter Fäh, told swissinfo. The total number of arrests had risen to 200 by the evening.

Nearby, two 19-year-old male college students from St Gallen were waiting for trouble, wondering when to put on the facemasks they carried in a rucksack. They said they were skipping school to "protest against capitalism".

"We're not actively in favour of violence, but we won't condemn anyone who uses violent means against the police and the system", one of the two, who refused to give his name, told swissinfo.

They said they were only three students at their school who had joined anti-globalisation protests in Zurich, and against the World Economic Forum in Davos last January. "We don't carry our fight into the school, except that we try to provoke a neo-Nazi guy whenever we can," they said.

A group of protestors fled a cloud of teargas by escaping through a passage underneath a car park over the Sihl river. As they ran away they stumbled upon a homeless person wrapped in his blanket. "Ever so sorry to disturb you",they said politely to the surprised man and walked on briskly.

While the May Day festival got underway with colourful take-away stands, music and childrens' playgrounds, police dispersed the remaining bands of protesters.

by Markus Haefliger

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