German police have halted a march by 18,000 coronavirus sceptics in Berlin because protesters were failing to respect social distancing.
The mass protest against pandemic restrictions had been allowed to go ahead after a bitter legal battle.
But it had barely begun at the city’s Brandenburg Gate when it was forced to stop due to a police injunction.
“The minimum distancing is not being respected by most [of the demonstrators] despite repeated requests,” the police said. “There is no other option than to break up the gathering.”
After the announcement, the demonstrators shouted: “Resistance” and “We are the people”, a slogan often used by the far-right, and sang the German national anthem.
Police had vowed to turn out in force and strictly monitor compliance with mask-wearing and physical distancing at the protest.
Berlin’s police chief, Barbara Slowik, had warned that if the demonstrators did not adhere to virus safety rules, police would clear the area “very quickly”.
“We will not be able or willing to watch tens of thousands assemble and create infection risks,” she added.
Berlin city authorities had previously decided not to allow the Saturday demonstration to go ahead, fearing that the estimated 22,000 protesters would not keep a distance of 1.5 metres (five feet) apart or comply with face mask requirements.
The ban sparked outrage from organisers and their supporters, who flooded social media with angry messages vowing to protest anyway, with some even calling for violence.
But on the eve of the demonstration, Berlin’s administrative court sided with the organisers, saying there was no indication that they would “deliberately ignore” social distancing rules and endanger public health.
A crowd including families with children gathered on Saturday morning around Brandenburg Gate, the starting point of the demonstration.
“I’m not an extreme rightwing sympathiser. I’m here to defend our fundamental freedoms,” said Stefan, a 43-year-old Berlin resident wearing a T-shirt bearing the words “thinking helps”.
“We’re here to say we have to be careful. Coronavirus crisis or not, we must defend our freedoms,” said Christina Holz, a 22-year-old student.
Around 3,000 police officers, including 1,000 federal police, would be deployed for the demonstration, alongside specialist equipment including water cannon, Slowik said.
Coronavirus cases continue to rise in Germany. Daily new infection numbers have reached their highest level since April.
Angela Merkel said at a press conference on Friday that confronting the virus would become more challenging in the autumn and winter months.
The chancellor and the leaders of Germany’s 16 federal states introduced tougher restrictions on Thursday, including a minimum €50 (£45) fine for people caught not wearing face masks where one is compulsory.
“We will have to live with this virus for a long time to come. It is still serious. Please continue to take it seriously,” Merkel said.
The court decision to allow the protest shines a light on the battle lines being drawn up between those who are content to follow government protection measures and those who believe that authorities should not be able to dictate how people live.
A similar “anti-corona” march in Berlin at the beginning of August drew 20,000 protesters, a mixture of the hard left and right, anti-vaccination campaigners, conspiracy theorists and self-described “free thinkers”.
Police broke up the protest early after participants repeatedly flouted Covid-19 safety regulations.
The far-right welcomed Friday’s court ruling allowing the latest rally to go ahead. Leif-Erik Holm, an MP for the anti-migrant AfD party, called it “a victory for freedom”.
Several groups intend to stage counter-demonstrations to the main protest.
Anne Helm, an MP from the leftwing party Die Linke, said: “There must be no tolerance towards racists, antisemites, rightwing extremists and Nazis. That is why I call on all Berliners to take part in the counter-events.”