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Riot act read, tactical teams break up Eritrea clashes at cultural events around in Edmonton

Click to play video: 'Police descend upon fight at soccer tournament in north Edmonton'
Police descend upon fight at soccer tournament in north Edmonton
WATCH: The Canada World Peace Soccer Tournament was taking place at several locations in north Edmonton and on Saturday, fighting broke out in the park of Rosslyn School.  – Aug 19, 2023

The politics of northeastern Africa spilled over at several locations in Edmonton Saturday afternoon, prompting a huge police presence and the riot act being read — the first time since 1999 — in order to break up fights at a cultural gathering, soccer tournament and musical event.

“I would say today’s event in Edmonton was an unprecedented event,” Edmonton Police Service Insp. Brenda Dalziel said during a rare Saturday evening news conference.

A crowd formed Saturday night outside the Maharaja Banquet Hall near 92nd Street 34a Avenue in southeast Edmonton, where a music event as part of the city’s Eritrean Festival was scheduled to be held.

Anti-Eritrea protesters gather outside an Eritrean Festival event at the Maharaja Banquet Hall in southeast Edmonton on Saturday, August 19, 2023. Global News

Dozens of police cruisers were seen packing the streets in the area as a few hundred protesters gathered outside the banquet hall.

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A police officer on scene told Global News it was an unlawful gathering and anticipated arrests may be made. On Monday, police said three demonstrators were detained and released following the incident. No charges were laid.

Police said the demonstrators “hurled projectiles at officers, including stones and bricks, resulting in the use of various tactics to gain control of the crowd.”

Just after 6 p.m., Global News witnessed what appeared to be gas being deployed and batons being used to control the crowd at the banquet hall.

Dalziel said no CS gas, which is used as a riot control agent, was deployed, however she said officers used OC spray, more commonly known as pepper spray, earlier in the day and deployed smoke in the evening.

Click to play video: 'Brawl between Eritrea community members that prompted riot act reading ‘unprecedented’: Edmonton police'
Brawl between Eritrea community members that prompted riot act reading ‘unprecedented’: Edmonton police

Dalziel said the evening protest was expected after the events of the afternoon and police resources were deployed accordingly.

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“It was very important to us to maintain peace and order and that was absolutely the reason for EPS to have the resources that we did have,” she said during a news conference Saturday night.

“We have a responsibility to the citizens of Edmonton to make sure that these festivals can go off and everyone can enjoy themselves and no one is hurt.”

Edmonton Police Service members in riot tactical gear as anti-Eritrea protesters gather outside an Eritrean Festival event at the Maharaja Banquet Hall in southeast Edmonton on Saturday, August 19, 2023. Global News

The evening protest came after tensions boiled over hours earlier on the city’s north side, forcing officers to don their riot gear.

The riot act was read, which police said gives people a fair warning to clear out before officers move in to break up a conflict.

“We did have to provide that warning so that people, folks, bystanders have the opportunity to leave and everyone involved has an opportunity to leave on their own — and to notify them that there may be some type of tactics used by police so there’s fair warning,” Dalziel said. “Yes, we did have to do that today.”

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On Monday, EPS said it last read the Riot Act on Canada Day in 1999, when chaos broke out on Whyte Avenue as bars were closing down for the night.

“Protective gear and the reading of the Riot Act are not always simultaneous, and officers have worn the gear to many events where significant risk to officers or the public is a possibility,” the statement said.

Several people were injured during the Saturday afternoon protests  — one was even taken by EMS to hospital.

The tensions first began at an Eritrea demonstration in north Edmonton before coming to a head at another location where the tournament was being held.

The Eritrean government has been described by human rights groups as one of the most repressive in the world, and events celebrating the country have attracted protesters.

“I think this was just a few people — it wasn’t the entire festival — it was just a few people in conflict with each other,” Dalziel said.

“It wasn’t a conflict with police — it was two groups in conflict with each other and the police were there to stand by and try to maintain public order.”

Police said officers first responded Saturday morning to a demonstration near 163 Street and 95 Avenue in relation to an Eritrean Festival that was scheduled to take place in a field in that area.

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Click to play video: 'Police tactical teams break up Eritrea clash at soccer tournament in Edmonton'
Police tactical teams break up Eritrea clash at soccer tournament in Edmonton

Police said it worked with organizers of both sides ahead of the festival to support the right to peaceful assembly and ensure public safety for both festival and demonstration attendees.

“Following discussion with both parties, rising tensions became evident and in the interest of public safety, the EPS, in collaboration with the City of Edmonton, elected to withdraw the festival permit,” EPS said in a statement.

Both the anti-Eritrea demonstrators and festivals organizers went their separate ways and police said at that point, there were no significant issues at the initial location.

That quickly changed.

The soccer match — billed as an event meant to promote world peace — instead descended into chaos late Saturday morning, forcing the Edmonton Police Service to send in a large number of officers in tactical gear to keep two fighting sides separated.

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A heavy Edmonton Police Service presence at an event in north Edmonton on Saturday, August 19, 2023. Global News

At approximately 11 a.m., police responded to 132nd Avenue and 113A Street, where the festival and demonstration had reportedly moved to the park at Rosslyn School.

The Canada World Peace Soccer Tournament was taking place at several locations in north Edmonton on Saturday, including that park.

Fights broke out between groups of men on the field, where dozens of officers wearing tactical gear descended while the Air 1 helicopter hovered overhead.

Police formed lines, physically blocking each side from approaching the other.

EPS said an altercation took place between both groups. One person was assaulted “with an object” and taken to hospital with non-life-threatening injuries.

Ten other people involved in the altercation have since taken themselves to hospitals in Edmonton with minor injuries.

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One officer was injured and required stitches after being hit with a projectile thrown by a demonstrator, police said.

Police said officers remained at Rosslyn Park to ensure public safety for both parties. Demonstrators and festival attendees have since dispersed and no additional injuries or concerns have been reported at this time.

A heavy Edmonton Police Service presence breaking up a fight between anti-Eritrea protesters and Eritrean Festival organizers at an event in north Edmonton on Saturday, August 19, 2023. Global News

Police remained on high alert Sunday in case tensions flared up again. EPS said as the day progressed, police received information about potential altercations between the two groups and the incidents were attended by patrol officers.

One of those incidents happened around 10 p.m., when police responded to a disturbance at a community hall near 127 Street and 120 Avenue that was being used for an event associated with the Eritrean Festival.

The suspect fled when officers arrived. Police determined a pellet gun had been used to shatter the windows of nearby vehicles.

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Due to ongoing safety concerns, the event was shut down and attendees inside the hall left.

Festival organizers disappointed in outcome

The Coalition of Eritrean Canadian Communities and Organizations issued a statement condemning the demonstrations.

“These series of violent and harassing demonstrations have no place in a civilized society,” part of the statement read. Scroll down for the full statement.

CECCO chairperson Lambros Kiriakakos said his group had a permit to hold the festival, which he said has been held for decades, adding people came from all over Western Canada to attend.

He’s disappointed political disagreements from their home country overtook the cultural event.

“We’re all from the same place. We all new Canadians. We all share the same culture. The similarities are 90 per cent the same.

“We may have some perspectives and opinions difference for back home, and that happens to every African country.”

Kiriakakos feels his group and the anti-Eritrea protesters were treated equally Saturday afternoon and that doesn’t sit well with him.

“As law-abiding citizens that we followed all the procedures,” he said. “Treating the aggressor and the attendee the same way, it’s wrong.”

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It makes him worried about future events.

“The police could have allowed them to protest — which we don’t have a problem — without crossing the line and without impeding the ability of the participants to enter the (festival.)”

Click to play video: 'Riot act read in Edmonton after anti-Eritrea clashes in Edmonton'
Riot act read in Edmonton after anti-Eritrea clashes in Edmonton

What is happening in Eritrea?

Eritrea, located in northeast Africa along the Red Sea, won independence from Ethiopia three decades ago.

Since then, Eritrea has been led by President Isaias Afwerki — who has never held an election. Millions of residents have fled the country, avoiding conditions including forced military conscription.

Click to play video: 'Professor weighs in on Edmonton Eritrean festival clashes'
Professor weighs in on Edmonton Eritrean festival clashes

The United Nations’ human rights office reported earlier in 2023 that the human rights situation in Eritrea “remained dire and showed no signs of improvement.”

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It listed credible reports of torture, arbitrary detention, enforced disappearances and restrictions on rights like peaceful protest.

“The situation in Eritrea was extremely dire; there were no elections, no parliament, no universities, no independent media and no opposing political parties,” the report read.

Those that escape the country have to make a perilous journey.

They generally travel across the Sahara desert and onwards up to the north of Africa, followed by a dangerous journey through the Mediterranean or Atlantic oceans, into Europe and beyond.

A festival last week in Toronto, along with other similar events around the world, is directly linked to the governing party in Eritrea, according to Awet Weldemichael, a professor at Queen’s University with specific knowledge of the Horn of Africa.

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“This is a festival that is, for the most part, organized by Eritrea’s ruling party, and the vast majority — I can’t say all of them — who frequent that festival, are sympathizers or supporters or loyalists of the ruling party in government,” he told Global News last week.

In a Change.org petition, a group of just over 2,000 people requested Edmonton’s Eritrea Festival be cancelled, arguing it is linked to the government’s ruling regime.

No officers were injured on Saturday, police said. Officers continue to investigate the altercations and as of the afternoon, no arrests had been made.

Edmonton police said it will keep working with both sides to facilitate “peaceful interactions at future events.”

BELOW: The Coalition of Eritrean Canadian Communities and Organizations statement

 

 

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— With files from Isaac Callan, Global News

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