LONDON (Reuters) - Thousands of demonstrators protesting in central London against a rise in university fees began to disperse Wednesday, after earlier scuffles with police and vandalism to some public buildings and a police van.
The largely peaceful protest was part of nationwide action that saw walkouts at universities, schools and colleges against the Conservative-led coalition government’s plans to almost triple tuition fees to up to 9,000 pounds ($14,500) a year.
Earlier in the day, small groups of protesters hurled placards at officers and some attacked a police van as they massed near parliament in central London. Others lit fires, one at a bus stop, and a Treasury building window was smashed.
Police said 17 people had been arrested in the capital for crimes including violent disorder and criminal damage, acts many students condemned as undermining their cause.
“I feel very strongly about the fees. I want to go to university and can’t afford to. I’m not rich and that’s why I’m here,” said London student Ben Batten, 15.
“I don’t think it’s right to smash a police van at all though,” he added.
Police were out in much greater numbers than at a student demonstration in London two weeks ago, when they were criticized for not preventing the storming of a building that houses the Conservative Party headquarters.
Lines of policemen in fluorescent jackets formed human barriers across streets in Whitehall, the heart of British government, while other police officers corralled students into small groups, a process known as “kettling.”
Police were criticized for letting people out too slowly.
“I’m cold, tired and in pain, and there are no loos for girls. I don’t understand why they are keeping us cooped up here like this. It’s ridiculous, we’ve been here for hours,” said Chantelle Shanthakanmar, 17, a London college student.
The student protest two weeks ago was the first major demonstration directly linked to the 81 billion pound ($130 billion) spending cuts announced by the coalition last month.
Police arrested almost 70 people over the earlier disorder which saw windows smashed, objects hurled at officers and an 18-year-old student pleaded guilty Wednesday to throwing a fire extinguisher from the roof of the Conservative Party building.
Students feel betrayed by the coalition government, in particular by junior partner the Liberal Democrat party, which had promised to vote against higher tuition fees.
Deputy Prime Minister and Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg told the BBC he “massively regrets” breaking his election promise, but said he was developing a “thick skin” toward the protests. He urged students to look at his education proposals in detail.
“...when people look at the detail of these proposals (they will) realize that all graduates will be paying less per month than they do at the moment and the poorest quarter will be paying much, much less,” he said.
Eleven demonstrators and two police officers were treated for injuries sustained in Wednesday’s protest in London.
“The majority are acting peacefully. There were a minority committing criminal offences,” police said.
Additional reporting by Tim Castle, Writing by Mohammed Abbas Michael Holden; Editing by Keith Weir, Ron Askew