Comment: German and global media is reporting an 'official' figure of 17,000 in attendance. The organizers estimate 1.3 MILLION people turned up...

protesters berlin
At least 18 police officers were reportedly injured in Berlin on Saturday as they tried to break up a large gathering of people demonstrating against coronavirus restrictions, including the face mask requirement.

Three of the officers were being treated in hospital, Berlin police said on Twitter. It had deployed 1,100 officers to monitor the rally and disperse the crowd.

As German officials warn of soaring infection numbers, the protesters remain defiant. "The virus of freedom has reached Berlin," said one of the organizers, Michael Ballweg.

Others chanted: "We are the second wave," as they moved through the German capital.

Police estimated that around 17,000 marched through Berlin and a total of 20,000 attended the culmination of the event. Most of the participants were not wearing masks or observing social distancing.

They said they could not confirm the "an exorbitantly large number" of participants thrown around on Twitter, in a likely reference to organizers claiming 1.3 million people attended the rally.

Berlin Mayor Michael Müller also sharply criticized the protester saying they have not looked at the facts and thus risked the health of other people. He added that there was no vaccine or effective treatment yet and that the situation was not over.

'Our freedom is being stolen'

DW's Benjamin Alvarez reported the arrival of trucks bearing anti-masks slogans with drummers on board.

Some protesters carried a banner calling for the arrest of US billionaire Bill Gates, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, German Health Minister Jens Spahn, and others.

Spahn commented on the event, saying that "Yes, demonstrations must also be possible in the time of coronavirus, but not like this."

"Distancing, hygiene rules, and face masks serve to protect all of us," he wrote on Twitter.

Lawmaker Saskia Esken, one of the two leaders of the center-left SPD party, slammed the attendees as "covidiots."

"Thousands of covidiots celebrate themselves in Berlin as the 'second wave' with no distancing, no masks," she said. "They are not only jeopardizing our health, they are jeopardizing our achievements against the pandemic and the revival of the economy, education, and society."

Demonstrators in Berlin 1
Protest halted

Hours into the protest, however, plans to continue along a wide boulevard that runs through the park were shelved after a police complaint.

Berlin police said they had launched legal action against the organizer over "non-respect of hygiene rules."

The initial rally had only registered for 1,000 participants.

In the late afternoon, police used loudspeakers to order demonstrators to leave the area peacefully.

Officers also removed several organizers from the stage to shouts and boos from those attending the rally.

When the attendees failed to move on, police told them they were committing misdemeanors, which led to further yelling and booing. Some of the participants had to be carried away by the police after refusing to leave the scene.

Competing protests

DW's Leonie von Hammerstein noted a counterprotest took place, with many citizens angry at those wanting to break the rules.

"The difference is the counterprotesters are wearing face masks, are keeping the [correct] social distance. Whereas the other protesters are not, they have been shouting 'the pandemic never happened.'

She then described experiencing verbal abuse from some protesters, including one man who shouted in her face.

"He believed in conspiracy theories. He believed Bill Gates was behind the coronavirus and wants to forcefully vaccinate everybody and the German government is helping him to do that," von Hammerstein said.

Getting tough on rule-breakers

The protests took place on the same day that German Economy Minister Peter Altmaier said he wanted tougher action on COVID-19 rule breakers.

"Anyone who deliberately endangers others must expect that this will have serious consequences for him," Altmaier said.

CSU leader Markus Söder has opposed further relaxation of restrictions as the number of new infections continues to rise. "We must expect coronavirus to come back on us with full force", the Bavarian Minister-President told the Bild am Sonntag newspaper.

"Many people have unfortunately become more reckless in dealing with the virus," he said.

The number of infections in Germany has been on the rise recently, with 955 new cases recorded on Saturday and 870 on Friday.

The surge has been attributed to the public becoming negligent on hygiene and social distancing rules, according to the Robert Koch Institute, the German government's disease control and prevention agency.