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NZ ponders aftermath of anti-vax protest

New Zealand police chief Andrew Coster has hailed his force as the world’s best despite a fiery end to a 23-day occupation of Wellington’s parliamentary precinct by anti-vaxxers.

On Wednesday, several hundred officers moved in on the occupation, which began on February 8 to protest against the government’s COVID-19 policies, specifically vaccine mandates.

Police encountered fierce resistance all day as they towed cars and broke down illegally assembled structures, including tents and even toilets plumbed into the middle of a Wellington road.

By afternoon, as police moved in, protesters threw chairs and paving stones at officers, and lit fires on parliament’s lawns as they retreated.

Seven officers spent the night at Wellington hospital with non-life threatening injuries.

“I’m incredibly proud of our people and what they did,” Mr Coster told Newstalk ZB.

“You won’t see more a more professional, restrained, courageous resolution of a situation like that anywhere else in the world. It was exceptional.”

There have been 87 arrests with charges including trespassing, obstruction, assaulting police and possession of weapons.

The commissioner was dubbed ‘Cuddles Coster’ and roundly criticised for letting the protest develop into a full-blown occupation blocking off several city centre streets in the parliamentary precinct.

He said a tipping point was reached as he received intelligence the protest had been infiltrated by violent individuals.

“We never wanted it to end like that but we did what we had to do,” he said.

It is not yet clear now the fringe anti-vaxx element will regather and respond, but the new day has brought reflections on the need to provide security at parliament alongside the right to protest.

Deputy Prime Minister Grant Robertson said the government would review arrangements but needed to strike a “careful balance”.

“Coming to protest is a very important (right). We’ll take some time to work our way through that,” he told Radio NZ.

“The low point (was) when the children’s playground was set fire to.

“Adjacent to the playground are two huge pohutukawa trees … I was very fearful they would go up as well. They didn’t due to the extraordinary efforts of our emergency services.”

The clearing of the lawns have also revealed the scale of the massive clean-up job, which has begun in earnest.

Protesters covered the lawns with hay and dug trenches during their stay and plenty left tents and possessions behind when they departed.

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