A peaceful memorial in Brussels on Sunday was interrupted when riot police had to disperse a large group of protesters, many of whom were seen making Nazi salutes.
Hundreds of people had gathered at the Place de la Bourse to remember the victims of the attacks in Brussels last week, which killed 31 people and wounded many others. Despite initial calls to delay the memorial gathering due to security concerns, the day started peacefully, with people laying flowers near the steps of the Brussels Stock Exchange.
Riot police and water canons were deployed, however, after many protesters interrupted the memorial and confronted Muslim women in the crowds, lit flares and firecrackers, and made Nazi salutes. Many of the protesters climbed the steps of the stock exchange building and chanted nationalist and anti-immigrant slogans, as well as slogans against ISIS, the militant group which claimed credit for the attacks in Brussels.
“We don’t believe in candles and flowers. That [is] for the dead,” one protester, who said his name was Mario and said he was in a “hooligan gang” from Ghent, told the Telegraph. “We want answers from the government. There are too many fanatics in this country.”
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Belgian leaders criticized the protesters and the interruption of the memorial gatheirng. “It is highly inappropriate that protesters have disrupted the peaceful reflection at the Bourse (stock exchange),” said Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel, according to Reuters. “I strongly condemn these disturbances.”
“I am appalled at what has happened, to see that such scoundrels come here to provoke people at their place of homage,” said Yvan Mayeur, the mayor of Brussels.
According to CNN, many people countered the protesters’ chants with “No to hatred” and “We are all the sons of immigrants.” Many of the people at the Place de la Bourse also cheered after riot police and water canons caused the protesters to leave.
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Adam Liston, who was at the Place de la Bourse at the time, told the BBC there had been a “really positive atmosphere” earlier in the day. “Then a bunch of skinheads just turned up, marched into the square, and started a major confrontation with the peace protesters. They got in the face of the protesters and police. They set off flares and chanted and it was getting quite ugly,” he said.
He also told the BBC that although the day had been “pretty non-violent”, it seemed like it “could have kicked off”.