By Anna Mehler Paperny, David Ljunggren and Ismail Shakil
OTTAWA (Reuters) -Police in Canada’s capital said on Monday they had seized thousands of liters of fuel and removed an oil tanker as part of a crackdown to end an 11-day protest against COVID-19 measures, adding truck and protester numbers had fallen significantly.
The protest, which has gridlocked Ottawa, has been largely peaceful but ear-splitting horn blaring by protesters saw a court on Monday grant an interim injunction preventing people from sounding horns in the city’s downtown.
The so-called “Freedom Convoy” consisting of truckers and other motorists started as a movement opposing a Canadian vaccine mandate for cross-border drivers – a requirement mirrored by a U.S. rule – has morphed into a rallying point against Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’ public health measures.
Trudeau, who appeared on Monday for the first time in nearly a week after being infected by COVID, said the protest has to stop. Responding to an emergency debate in the parliament, Trudeau denounced the tactics used by demonstrators.
“This is a story of a country that got through this pandemic by being united and a few people shouting and waving swastikas does not define who Canadians are,” he said.
Trudeau and his family left Ottawa to an undisclosed location as the convoy started rolling into the city due to security concerns. The protests last week included some Confederate and Nazi flags.
Canadians have largely followed government’s health measures and nearly 79% of the eligible population has taken two doses of the vaccine. But recent polls have shown frustrations against restrictions are growing.
While Ottawa awoke to its second week of what its political and policing leaders now describe as a siege, Ottawa Police Chief Peter Sloly said on Monday activity has decreased at the blockades. This weekend, police counted 1,000 trucks and 5,000 protesters, down from 3,000 trucks and 10,000 to 15,000 protesters last weekend, Sloly added.
“We are turning up the heat in every way we possibly can,” Sloly told reporters, days after he said there may not be a “policing solution” to the occupation. “We are asking for a major push of resources to come in the next 72 hours.”
On Monday, a Canadian judge granted a 10-day injunction preventing people from sounding horns in downtown Ottawa. The injunction was part of a class-action lawsuit brought on behalf of downtown Ottawa residents, some of whom have said they feel unsafe in their own neighbourhood.
The Ambassador Bridge, a major road bridge connecting Canada and the United States was temporarily closed in both directions, the Canadian government website said https://bit.ly/3rww8zo late Feb. 7. The Windsor-Detroit border is the busiest international crossing in North America.
Deputy Police Chief Steve Bell told city councillors on Monday police had received “active threats to public figures throughout this occupation,” which they continue to investigate.
Ottawa police have received help from hundreds of officers in other police agencies, but they say it is not enough. Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson asked for reinforcements in a letter on Monday to Trudeau and Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino.
“The occupation has turned into an aggressive and hateful occupation of our neighbourhoods,” he wrote. “People are living in fear and are terrified.” He called the honking “tantamount to psychological warfare.”
A short stretch of Metcalfe Street in downtown Ottawa, home to Canada’s parliament, central bank, and buildings including Trudeau’s office, smelled of campfire on Monday. A clustering of trucks, cars and tractors without trailers bore signs deriding everything from vaccines and mandates to Canada’s carbon tax.
One sign showed a poster of Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which guarantees rights including that of life, liberty and security of the person – subject to “reasonable limits.”
‘PRIME MINISTER STOP HIDING’
Packets of water bottles, briquettes and diapers were piled high beside open-sided white tents with tables of food.
There was also evidence of pushback from residents. Small signs in the ground-floor windows of an apartment building a few blocks away said: “GO HOME MORONS” and “VACCINES SAVE LIVES.”
“We cannot allow an angry crowd to reverse the course that continues to save lives in this last stretch. This should never be a precedent for how to make policy in Canada,” Mendicino told reporters on Monday.
Trudeau did not attend the press conference and missed question period in the parliament.
“When will the prime minister stop hiding, show up for Canadians, show some leadership and fix the mess that he’s created?” interim Conservative Party leader Candice Bergen, who has supported the protests, told the House of Commons.
On Sunday night, police began removing gas and fuel supplies at a logistics encampment set up by protesters after the city’s mayor declared a state of emergency https://www.reuters.com/world/americas/protest-against-vaccine-mandates-paralyzing-canada-capital-mayor-says-2022-02-06 on Sunday.
A well-organized supply chain — including portable saunas, a community kitchen and bouncy castles for children — has sustained the protesters. It has relied partly on funding from sympathizers in the United States, police said.
Former U.S. President Donald Trump and Tesla CEO Elon Musk have praised the truckers.
Over the weekend, protests spilled over into other large Canadian cities, including the financial capital Toronto, and were met with counter demonstrations.
(Reporting by Anna Mehler-Paperny in Ottawa; Additonal reporting by Radhika AnilkumarWriting by Denny Thomas; Editing by Andrea Ricci, Lisa Shumaker and Michael Perry)