HALIFAX (CP) - Police are defending their use of tear gas, pepper spray balls and stun guns on protesters armed with slingshots and water balloons during the last hours of the G-7 finance ministers meeting in Halifax on Saturday. Thirty-one people were arrested, and four are facing criminal charges, after a mainly peaceful protest turned into several violent scuffles with riot police starting outside the building where the ministers from the world's richest developed countries were meeting.
"There is no question some people were here to incite violence," said Supt. Chris McNeil of the Halifax Regional Police during a news conference held with the RCMP on Sunday.
"We have proof of some protesters changing clothes up to four times in an attempt to elude police. They came prepared for confrontations with police.
"Without the professionalism and restraint of police officers, many people would have been hurt."
The atmosphere of the protests changed shortly after noon Saturday when a group of demonstrators pulled down police barricades in the city's downtown.
Thirty minutes later, police fired two volleys of tear gas to disperse the crowd of about 200 after "a small number" of protesters attacked reporters and pelted officers with a variety of objects including oranges, ball bearings and glass bottles, McNeil said.
Up until that time, protesters had simply marched through the city's blocked off streets, banging on drums, carrying flags and chanting for democracy.
McNeil said police were expecting some violent activities Saturday after learning from peaceful demonstrators and plainclothes officers late Friday of plans to tear down the barricades and trash a nearby shopping district.
Six people received stun gun blasts after they refused to move to a nearby street or resisted arrest, while two others were hit with pepper spray balls, he said.
One police officer also drew his gun on protesters when a plainclothes officer trying to make an arrest was "swarmed" by a group of 10 to 20 other people on the city's waterfront, McNeil confirmed.
Jon Elmer, a member of a loose coalition of protest groups called the G-7 Welcoming Committee, said many of the statements by the two police departments were wrong or skewed.
"The protests were not violent, what was violent was the police response," said the veteran of protests across Canada.
"By the time they pushed us all the way down to the waterfront, the police broke ranks and were chasing after individual protesters . . . People were just running around.
"It was just like recess in an elementary school. Police officers in full armour were tackling girls half their size."
The 500 officers brought in from around Atlantic Canada and Ontario showed restraint in dealing with the hostile crowd and some received minor injuries during the melee, McNeil said.
"The police did not change the rules, those intent on disturbing these meetings did," said RCMP Supt. Craig MacLaughlan.
"We feel fully justified in taking the action that we took yesterday. We did everything by the books. When they breached our barricade is when the rules changed."
Any complaints about the way things were handled by the RCMP will be investigated fully, MacLaughlan said.
Howard Epstein, an NDP member of the Nova Scotia legislature, said he plans to file a complaint about the police handling of the event.
Two men will appear in provincial court Monday on charges of unlawful assembly and violations of court orders from other parts of the country involving similar demonstrations.
Another male and a female will be in court Sept. 3 to face charges of resisting arrest.
Twenty-nine arrested for breaching the peace were released from police custody early Sunday.
The Halifax meeting was the last ministerial meeting before the G-8 summit in Kananaskis, Alta., later this month.
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