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50 arrested as riot police break up Montreal tuition fee protest

Protesters opposing Quebec student tuition fee increases march in Montreal, March 5, 2013.

Graham Hughes/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Montreal police donned riot gear and moved in to make at least 50 arrests after an initially peaceful demonstration by Quebec students protesting tuition fee hikes took a destructive turn Tuesday night.

At least one protester and one police officer were injured in the melee. According to police, the demonstrator was injured in the leg by a stun grenade while the officer received a slight injury near an eye from a projectile.

Thousands had turned out to rally against the Quebec government's recent decision to raise fees by three per cent per a year. Many students believe the government should have frozen tuition fees after a summit held last month on education.

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What started as a noisy but fairly orderly march began to turn rowdy near Montreal's Convention Centre in the city's Chinatown district late Tuesday night when several bottles and chunks of ice were thrown at police watching the crowd.

Windows were smashed at a bank and a hotel downtown, and police said some protesters had vandalized patrol cars by smashing windows and defacing them with spray paint.

At one point, what appeared to be a flare or a firework was thrown and exploded on the sidewalk.

The situation grew increasingly tense when a riot squad lined up across the street from the protest and began moving in towards the demonstrators.

Officers then charged the crowd while striking their shields.

Police on foot and on horseback moved in on protesters from different sides to disperse the approximately 1,000 demonstrators who remained by the time the protest was brought to an end.

Police confirmed at least 50 people were arrested Tuesday night and were facing charges of mischief and unlawful assembly.

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The march was a rekindling of nightly protests that took place during last year's student unrest. Most were peaceful, but some marches turned violent and led to mass arrests.

Tuesday's protest drew a heavy police presence from the outset. A police helicopter hovered overhead and officers initially watched from the sidelines as demonstrators chanted, set off noisemakers and waved banners during their march through the city core.

"One, two, three, four, this is a class war," yelled some protesters in English, while others called on demonstrators to "take to the streets" in French.

Police declared the march illegal almost immediately as organizers failed to provide a route for the protest as required by municipal bylaws. Officers said they would allow the protest to proceed, however, as long as it remained peaceful.

Quebec's student strikes began in February 2012 after then-premier Jean Charest's government announced tuition increases of $1,625 spread over five years.

The Parti Québécois cancelled the Liberals' plan after it took power following the Sept. 4 provincial election. The PQ's increase will raise tuition by $70 per year.

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Tuesday night's protest was spurred after last month's long-awaited summit on education where student leaders had hoped to win a freeze on tuition.

A demonstration took place on Feb. 26 after the government announced its three-per-cent-per-year increases.

Premier Pauline Marois left the summit proclaiming an end to social unrest but within hours student marchers were clashing with police, resulting in 13 arrests.

The scene was reminiscent of Quebec's so-called Maple Spring, which made news around the world.

Class boycotts followed as did nightly marches which were mostly peaceful, but which sometimes degenerated into projectile-throwing melees and scuffles with riot police.

In at least one case, police rounded up more than 500 people after corralling demonstrators on a downtown street.

One of the most rowdy clashes was during the weekend of the Montreal Grand Prix, when fires were set and windows were smashed as police battled demonstrators.

The nightly demonstrations also gained recognition for their rallying cry, which usually happened promptly at 8 p.m. and saw people banging pots and pans in neighbourhoods around Montreal and in other parts of the province.

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