Riot police end standoff at Melbourne's Shrine of Remembrance on third day of protests

Police have shut down an almost three-hour standoff with protesters at Melbourne’s Shrine of Remembrance, moving in and making a number of arrests as hundreds dispersed towards the city centre.

Officers had surrounded protesters at the war memorial, south of the city’s CBD, since about 3pm on Wednesday on the third day of protests in Melbourne. The protests come during a two-week shutdown of the state’s construction industry over Covid concerns.

The protests started with members of the powerful Construction, Forestry, Maritime, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) resisting a government mandate for compulsory vaccinations in order for them to continue to work on building sites. But they grew to include anti-lockdown and so-called “freedom” protesters.

Shortly before 5pm, police moved in after issuing the protesters with several warnings to leave the shrine via an exit the riot police had cleared for them.

Some left, but others stood their ground, arguing they wanted an alternative way out.

Victoria police earlier declared a no-fly zone over the CBD. It is understood they asked news helicopter crews not to fly over the protests, concerned the footage was providing intel to the protesters.

Police have yet to report on how many arrests have been made.

Earlier on Wednesday, hundreds of police, including officers from the riot squad, lined city streets.

Despite callouts on social media channels, initially only a small number of people were seen outside the CFMEU’s office in the central business district. There had been five reported arrests as of 11am AEST.

The numbers swelled during the day, but were far lower than on Tuesday. Police in riot gear moved through the city throughout the morning, breaking up the protesters into smaller groups. At around midday, the protesters left the city down St Kilda Road towards the shrine, where they sat on the steps outside the memorial.

Police soon followed, and formed a line in front of the memorial blocking the protesters.

Just before 3pm, police were urging those gathered to leave back through St Kilda road.

Related: What do we know about the protests in Melbourne, and how did the numbers grow?

RSL Victoria slammed the protest, saying the site was “sacred, not a space of protest”.

“Under no circumstances, ever, should the Shrine be a place of protest,” an RSL spokesperson said in a statement.

“If any individuals or groups choose to express their political views, positions or ideological theories in the grounds of the Shrine at any time, they are completely disrespecting the sanctity of this time-honoured space.”

The Victorian premier Daniel Andrews condemned the “ugly scenes”, warning Victoria police would “take action” against protesters who did the wrong thing.

“I think there were some people there who you would say were from the building industry. There were others who were not from the building industry,” Andrews said.

© Provided by The Guardian Police detain a women in Melbourne near the CFMEU building on Wednesday morning. Photograph: Darrian Traynor/Getty Images

“What we saw yesterday is an insult … to the vast, vast majority of tradies or people in the building industry who are not about wrecking, they’re about building.

“They did not reflect and should not be seen to reflect an entire industry. They’re not there to protest, they’re there for a fight.”

“Today there are more coronavirus cases in construction than there are in aged care,” he said.

“There are more cases of coronavirus in the construction sector than there are patients with coronavirus in hospitals across the whole hospital system.”

There have been 350 Covid-19 cases in the construction sector – which employs 320,000 workers – in the past two months, across 150 different worksites.

© Provided by The Guardian ‘They’re not there to protest, they’re there for a fight,’ the Victorian premier Daniel Andrews said of the protesters on Wednesday. Photograph: James Ross/AAP

The police minister Lisa Neville said Victoria Police would deploy “whatever tactics” they needed to in response to a third protest planned for later this morning.

“They have my full support in deploying whatever tactics they need to ensure these thugs, these violent thugs, are unable to cause further harm to our city and to our community,” she said.

No ‘cat and mouse’ games on Wednesday

The Victorian police commissioner Shane Patton said Melbourne had seen “significant unrest” over the past few days, and protesters wouldn’t be seeing any “cat and mouse” games if they decided to come to the city on Wednesday.

More than 500 police are expected to be deployed across the city.

“I certainly understand that people are fatigued, they’re tired, they have got grievances and they’re frustrated, but now is not the time for protest,” Patton said.

“We will do everything we can to stop the gatherings in compliance with the chief health officer guidelines,” he said.

“I would implore, I plead, I’d ask, any other word that I can use, to say to people who are contemplating coming in here today to protest – do not do so. You’re not going to be welcomed with open arms, I can assure you of that.

“We have significant tactics in place. We will be agile in our response, we will be very swift in our response and conduct as we have seen yesterday and the previous day will not be tolerated.”

Patton said a “range of crowd control equipment” used at protests earlier in the week were ready to be deployed if necessary.

On Tuesday, officers used pepper balls, foam baton rounds, smoke bombs and stinger grenades that deploy rubber pellets to shut down protesters.

Patton said he “wasn’t clear” whether right-wing extremists were present in the crowd on Tuesday, but was “aware” there was representation from neo-Nazi groups in recent protests.

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