Clashes hit massive British anti-cuts demo

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Masked rogue protesters battled police and occupied a top London food store on Saturday, overshadowing a peaceful march by more than a quarter of a million Britons against government spending cuts.

In the biggest rally in the capital since protests against the Iraq war in 2003, adults and children joined a demonstration called by unions against the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition's austerity measures.

But police said 157 people were arrested and 35 people were injured when a small group of "criminals" split off from the main protest and rampaged through the capital's commercial district smashing up shops and banks.

"I think it's a game of two halves. Two hundred and fifty thousand people came to central London and protested peacefully," said Commander Bob Broadhurst of Scotland Yard, who led the police operation.

"But what we have had unfortunately is a group of criminals, nothing to do with that march, have decided to on their own steam attack buildings in central London and attack police officers," he told Sky News.

Several hundred black-clad protesters covering their faces with scarves attacked shops and banks and hurled fireworks, petrol bombs and paint at police, AFP reporters saw.

Clothes store Topshop and banks HSBC and Lloyds had their windows smashed, while some protesters hurled missiles at London's landmark Ritz Hotel. Others lit a bonfire at Oxford Circus, in the heart of the shopping district.

A group of protesters occupied luxury food store Fortnum and Mason and sprayed graffiti on the building and police surrounded the building, saying they were treating the area as a crime scene.

UK Uncut, a group running a campaign against government cuts and corporate tax avoidance, accused the store's owners of tax-dodging.

Five police officers and 30 members of the public were wounded in the violence, with 16 people including one police officer needing hospital treatment, Scotland Yard said.

It said there were 157 arrests for public order offences, criminal damage, aggravated trespass and violent disorder. About 4,500 police officers were deployed for the protest.

Several British student demonstrations descended into chaos last year, with one culminating in protesters damaging the car carrying heir-to-the-throne Prince Charles and his wife Camilla.

The violent end to Saturday came after the peaceful rally which organisers the Trades Union Congress (TUC) said was attended by between 250,000 and 300,000 people.

Public sector workers, students and pensioners waving signs which read "Don't Break Britain" and "No to Cuts" thronged the streets of the capital.

Many families with children were among the protesters and the air was filled with the low-pitched bellow of the vuvuzela, the plastic trumpet whose droning provided the soundtrack for the football World Cup in South Africa.

TUC chief Brendan Barber said he "bitterly regretted" the violence.

"I don't think the activities of a few hundred people should take the focus away from the hundreds of thousands of people who have sent a powerful message to the government today," he said.

The march started by the river Thames, passed the Houses of Parliament and Prime Minister David Cameron's Downing Street residence before ending in a rally in Hyde Park addressed by opposition Labour Party leader Ed Miliband.

"Our struggle is to fight to preserve, protect and defend the best of the services we cherish because they represent the best of the country we love," Miliband told the rally.

It was the largest protest in London since one million people marched against the Iraq war in February 2003.

After coming to power in May, the coalition announced cuts worth £81 billion ($131 billion, 92 billion euros) over five years in order to slash a record public deficit it blames on the previous Labour government.

The cuts involve most government departments, with the loss of 300,000 public service jobs and pay freezes for civil servants.

© 2011 AFP

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