Bricks thrown, sponge bullets fired in Wellington unrest

Police have fired sponge bullets at protesters massing at the Cenotaph in Wellington, after earlier turning fire hoses on the mob.

Police in riot gear this afternoon shunted protesters off Parliament's lawn, only for fresh skirmishes to flare up at the corner of Lambton Quay and Bowen St.

Protesters have since thrown a rock and smashed the glass doors to Victoria University's Pipitea Campus and set fire to a rubbish skip outside in Bunny St.

Trains have been suspended and Wellington's railway station has been closed "to ensure the health, safety, and wellbeing of all passengers as the protest action around Parliament continues to escalate".

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern says she is "both angry and deeply saddened" to see Parliament's grounds "desecrated" by protesters as police forced the occupation off the precinct.

While she said police expected hostility, resistance and violence "it is another thing entirely to witness it".

RNZ reported that several police appeared to be injured. Photo: RNZ
RNZ reported that several police appeared to be injured. Photo: RNZ

Three police injured in the violence have been taken to hospital, after bricks were torn up and thrown at them, RNZ reports.

Asked how she hoped the occupation would be resolved, Ardern said: "I hope they will put down their weapons and police will arrest them."

Ardern's comments came after police said protesters deliberately torched tents and a playground slide during violent skirmishes with officers.

People were being urged to stay away from the area around Parliament tonight, as the police operation to restore order continued.

Several tents at the site were set on fire this afternoon, with firefighters rushing to the scene to put out the blaze. A slide at Parliament's playground was also torched.

As officers cleared Parliament's lawns police said protesters set several tents on fire.

"These actions put both protesters and emergency service staff at significant risk."

A slide at Parliament's playground was also torched.

A slide on fire at Parliament's playground. Photo: RNZ
A slide on fire at Parliament's playground. Photo: RNZ

A large group of officers in riot gear and body armour gathered outside the Parliamentary Library complex and then began advancing on the main occupation site on Parliament's lawn, sparking fresh skirmishes just before 2.30pm.

Protesters responded by throwing bottles and chairs and dousing officers with fire extinguishers. Police responded with pepper spray.

Protest spokesman Leighton Baker was among those pepper-sprayed and arrested, his family says.

Police appear to have now regained control of the Parliament grounds, with the space cleared out as officers moved quickly to clear tents, gazebos and other items from the space that has housed the protesters for 23 days.

Ardern said earlier today that the protesters had been given "ample opportunity" to leave the site as police kicked off a "major operation" to clear the area that started in the early hours of the morning.

"The protest has been at times been violent and fuelled by misinformation and conspiracy theories."

It had also turned into a Covid-19 superspreader event.

Ardern earlier today acknowledged the work police had done, saying today had been difficult.

Police commissioner Andrew Coster said earlier officers were undertaking a "major operation" today to clear the roads and restore order to the impacted areas of the capital.

"The operation is the result of significant planning and the commitment of several hundred staff from around the country."

Today's police action followed an escalation in concerning behaviour, and the protest had reached a stage where the harm being done far outweighed any legitimate protest.

"This has never been about preventing lawful protest."

Police assistant commissioner Richard Chambers told Newstalk ZB he was pleased with the progress police made today.

Speaking with Newstalk ZB's Andrew Dickens, Chambers said police staff have been "incredibly measured".

Asked about how many injured protesters, Chambers said he was unsure. "A lot of the aggression we've seen has been from the protesters."

"Some of the behaviour that has played out from protesters - like the fires - is not acceptable," Chambers said.

Anti-vaccine and anti-mandate protesters have been occupying Parliament grounds in central Wellington for 23 days, living in tents and clogging surrounding streets with cars and trucks.

About 60 people have been arrested amid clashes between police and protesters from early today.

Ardern earlier told media she believed there should be a review of whether more could have been done earlier to prevent things from reaching the stage they had.

Ardern said her view since that had been that they needed to leave, regardless of police enforcement action, "But you can see from the numbers involved, that [police] are working very hard to clear those who remain."

She said the aftermath would include checking whether Parliament's own security was sufficient - but she would be concerned about anything that felt as if it was distancing Parliament from the public.

She held her verdict on the Speaker's proposal of a fence around Parliament. She did not know how much the protest and police action had cost the public.

'We will continue this operation until this is completed'

Earlier today police said they had started towing cars and would move to towing larger vehicles as they close in on Parliament.

Coster said officers would continue to try to clear roads and restore order throughout the day.

He said the operation was the result of significant planning and the commitment of several hundred staff from around the country.

"Our message to those who do not wish to be caught up in our operation is, please go home."

Police were clear from the start that de-escalation was the preferred option, he said.

"We have reached the stage where protest leaders were either unable or unwilling to effect substantial change."

In the last week, there had been a changing mix in the make-up of the crowd, he said.

"We have been concerned that those with good intentions have been outnumbered by those willing to use violence.

"The harm being done far outweighs any legitimate protest."

Protesters and police clash this morning. Photo: RNZ
Protesters and police clash this morning. Photo: RNZ

Morning police operation at Parliament

A police helicopter was this morning circling overhead and people are urged to stay out of the area as police, some clad in riot gear, march into Parliament and the surrounding grounds.

Police said officers had sighted protesters in possession of weapons including homemade shields and pitchforks.

"Protesters have also been pointing a laser at the Police helicopter."

Clashes have broken out between protesters and police and protesters could be heard cheering and yelling "f--k yeah!" after a police officer fell to the ground before being kicked by a protester.

Hundreds of police are conducting the operation in Wellington this morning.

At about 10.15am police said "around 60 people have now been arrested".

Police were still encouraging protesters to leave the area.

Paramedics tending to police. Photo: NZ Herald/ Mike Scott
Paramedics tending to police. Photo: NZ Herald/ Mike Scott

"We continue to urge those wishing to leave to let our staff know. We will work to facilitate their safe exit from the area.

"Police are pleased with the number of people and vehicles that have voluntarily left the protest area this morning, and we will continue to work with partner agencies to assist us with the safe movement of people, including helping them get their vehicles out safely if they wish.

"Police have seen at least 10 children within the protest area in Wellington and have concerns for their wellbeing.

Police want to reiterate this is not an appropriate place for children and we continue to urge those with young ones to pack up and go home."

Police have so far reclaimed the National Library and the Parliamentary Library forecourt as well as several streets – but protesters were seen building buffers out of pallets to try and stave off police advances.

Police say this morning's operation, which began at 6am, has gone as planned and they are pleased to see a number of protester vehicles preparing to leave the area.

Protesters pouring milk in their eyes after pepper spray. Photo: RNZ/Charlotte Cook
Protesters pouring milk in their eyes after pepper spray. Photo: RNZ/Charlotte Cook

Police ripped down a number of tents - and separated the protesters as they moved through the streets, forming guard lines.

In one livestream protesters can be heard calling out for milk to help alleviate the effects of the pepper spray.

It appears they have also sprayed themselves while clashing with police.

Protesters and police clash this morning. Photo: RNZ
Protesters and police clash this morning. Photo: RNZ

One woman livestreaming the event could be heard asking: "Who on our side is spraying stuff?

"It's gone in everyone's mouths!"

"A pre-planned operation is under way to restore access within the protest area on Parliament grounds," police said in a statement shortly after officers began moving into the area.

"Police are advising the public to avoid the area around Parliament this morning."