Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte has condemned nationwide riots that saw demonstrators attack police and set fires in protest against a night-time curfew to slow the spread of the coronavirus, calling them “criminal violence”.
The police have since detained hundreds who participated in the protests, which lasted from Saturday evening until early Monday. Some rioters had thrown rocks and knives at police and burned down a COVID testing station.
“This has nothing to do with protest, this is criminal violence and we will treat it as such,” Rutte told reporters outside his office in The Hague.
Schools and non-essential shops in the Netherlands have been shut since mid-December, following the closure of bars and restaurants two months earlier.
Rutte’s government has said the curfew was an additional lockdown measure over fears that the so-called “UK variant” may soon lead to an increase in cases.
At least 13,540 people have died from COVID-19 in the Netherlands, where cases have reached 944,000.
Riots in the capital, cities nationwide
The unrest over the weekend marked the worst violence to hit the Netherlands since the pandemic began and saw rioters clash with police in about 10 towns and cities.
Authorities on Sunday used water cannon and dogs in a square in the capital, Amsterdam, where hundreds of people gathered during the curfew that began on Saturday, public television NOS reported.
Videos showed police spraying people grouped against a wall of the Van Gogh Museum.
Protesters, organised in part by restaurant owners fed up with long-lasting lockdown measures, carried a banner saying “Stop The Lockdown”. The crowd of hundreds was also believed to include supporters of the anti-immigrant group, PEGIDA.
Nearly 200 people, some of them throwing stones and fireworks, were detained in the city.
In the southern city of Eindhoven, police fired tear gas to disperse a crowd of several hundred, regional television Omroep Brabant reported.
Several vehicles were burned and businesses at Eindhoven’s central train station were looted, media reports said. There were no immediate reports of injuries.
The Dutch rail company NS called on travellers to avoid the Eindhoven station, where it said train circulation was interrupted due to the intervention of emergency services nearby.
In Enschede, a city near the border with Germany, protesters gathered near a hospital and attempted to break several windows, while a COVID-19 testing centre was also set on fire on Saturday evening in the village of Urk in the north of the country, local authorities said.
“The fire in a screening centre in Urk goes beyond all limits,” Health Minister Hugo de Jonge said on Sunday.
The police trade union NPB said there could be more protests ahead as people grow increasingly frustrated with the months-long lockdown.
“We haven’t seen so much violence in 40 years,” union board member Koen Simmers said on television program Nieuwsuur.
Rutte rolls out curfew, travel bans
The Netherlands’ 9pm to 4:30am curfew is the country’s first since World War II, with Rutte saying it is needed to bring down virus case numbers. Violators face a 95-euro ($115) fine.
Exemptions are possible, in particular for people returning from funerals or those having to work, but on condition that they present a certificate.
In another bid to curtail infection rates, Rutte’s government last week also rolled out a ban on flights from the United Kingdom, South Africa and South America, and a cut in the number of guests allowed in people’s homes to one, from the previous limit of two.
New variants of the virus have led to deep concern in Europe, particularly the strain that first emerged in the UK.
Separately, Rutte and his cabinet resigned on January 22 over a scandal involving child tax benefits, but they will continue to govern until elections in mid-March.
Rutte has said he will remain to take decisions on COVID-19 policies until a new government is formed after the March 17 elections, seeking broad support for measures from both coalition and opposition parties.