Australian govt, activists trade blame for clash
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Australian govt, activists trade blame for clash

SYDNEY (AP) — Authorities and indigenous-rights protesters blamed each other Friday for a heated clash in which bodyguards had to rush Prime Minister Julia Gillard out of an event marking the anniversary of British colonization.

Gillard stumbled in Thursday’s fray and lost a shoe, which protesters scooped up after the rowdy demonstration in the capital Canberra. Aboriginal-rights supporters had surrounded a restaurant and banged on its windows while Gillard and opposition leader Tony Abbott were inside at an award ceremony to mark Australia Day.


Australia's Prime Minister Julia Gillard, second from left, is escorted out for safety by body guards and police through a crowd of rowdy protesters following a ceremony to mark Australia's national day in Canberra, Australia, Thursday. Pic: AP.

Michael Outram, national manager of protection for the Australian Federal Police, said police may file charges against some of the protesters. Gillard said Friday that she was fine, but slammed the activists’ actions.

“I’ve got no troubles at all with peaceful protests. … What I utterly condemn is when protests turn violent the way we saw the violence yesterday, and particularly to disrupt an event which was to honor some extraordinary Australians,” she said.

Protest leaders denied doing anything wrong, accused the police of manhandling protesters and said they planned to lodge a complaint against the officers involved.

“The Australian Federal Police came at us with force and we did not retaliate with force,” protest spokeswoman Selina Daveys-Newry told reporters Friday. “We see straight through that little puppet play.”

About 200 indigenous-rights supporters marched on the nation’s Parliament House on Friday, burning an Australian flag in front of a wall of police and carrying signs with messages such as “All cops are bastards.” No one was hurt and the protesters left minutes later.

The restaurant where Thursday’s clash occurred is close to the so-called Aboriginal Tent Embassy, where the protesters had demonstrated peacefully earlier in the day. That long-standing, ramshackle collection of tents and temporary shelters is a center point of protests against Australia Day, which marks the arrival of the first fleet of British colonists in Sydney on Jan. 26, 1788. Many Aborigines call it Invasion Day because the land was settled without a treaty with traditional owners.

Outram defended the way Thursday’s incident had been handled, saying police had no idea the protest — which had been peaceful for much of the day — would turn aggressive.

“We had no information or reason to suspect there was going to be any problem,” Outram told reporters in Canberra.

Abbott was the focus of much of the protesters’ rage. The Tent Embassy celebrated its 40th anniversary on Thursday, and Abbott had earlier angered activists by saying it was time the embassy “moved on.” Abbott said Friday that his comment had been misinterpreted, and that he never meant to imply the embassy should be torn down.

Warren Mundine, a respected Aboriginal leader, denounced the actions of the protesters, saying they had overreacted.

“They are a fringe, radical group — they’re not the mainstream of indigenous Australians,” Mundine said. “If you look at (Abbott’s) words, they’re pretty harmless and they don’t even mention anything about moving the Tent Embassy.”

Questions lingered, meanwhile, about the fate of Gillard’s high-heeled blue suede shoe. There was talk about holding it for ransom or auctioning it off on eBay, but Tent Embassy founder Michael Anderson said at a press conference Friday that it would be returned to the prime minister.

Gillard didn’t seem to care.

“It really doesn’t worry me,” she said with a grin. “I’m in a fortunate situation where I’m a woman with a few pairs of shoes.”