An area in south Edmonton has been closed by police who are keeping an eye on a group of people who say they are protesting the Eritrean government.
Traffic is being directed away from 34A Avenue and 93 Street.
Police released gas on the crowd around 6 p.m. as officers formed a line blocking off Maharaja Banquet Hall; people were seen rinsing their eyes after the gas was released.
The protesters had originally set up outside the hall, but as of 7 p.m. had been marched to the other side of 93 Street.
Edmonton police stand on 93 Street in south Edmonton on Aug. 19, 2023, keeping in place of group of people who say they were there to protest the Eritrean government. (CTV News Edmonton / Sean McClune)
More than 100 police – equipped with masks, shields, batons and helmets – as well as canine units and two armoured trucks were on scene at that time.
Many in the group were wearing the same blue shirts that were seen at an Eritrean event earlier on Saturday.
Eleven people were hurt there in clashes that broke out between festival attendees and the so-called protesters.
People were hit and property was damaged at the earlier event on Saturday after a group of protesters showed up, attendees say.
Lambros Kyriakakos, the chairman of the Coalition of Eritrean Canadian Communities and Organizations, said he helped organize an annual Eritrean community festival that draws people from across western Canada.
“We’ve always gathered 40 years peacefully. This year? No. We have a challenge,” he told CTV News Edmonton that afternoon in the Rosslyn neighbourhood as police in riot gear dispersed the remaining crowd.
He said the protesters attacked some in the festival crowd with sticks.
“Few of our people were hit,” Kyriakakos said.
He claimed any violence by festival attendees was self defence.
Lambros Kyriakakos, the chairman of the Coalition of Eritrean Canadian Communities and Organizations, speaks to CTV News Edmonton on Aug. 19, 2023, after an Eritrean festival which he helped organize was protested by a group. Eleven people were hurt in a fight between festival attendees and protesters.
But one of the protesters denied that his side started the fight.
Michael Asfha, from Winnipeg, Man., said his group was there to “oppose the regime government, or the regime, in Eritrea.”
“From that side, they started to hit us and we defend ourselves,” Asfha told CTV News Edmonton.
One person who was “assaulted with an object” was hospitalized with non-life-threatening injuries, Edmonton Police Service said.
Police counted 10 others with minor injuries.
POLICE RESPOND IN RIOT GEAR
According to EPS, the festival kicked off in west Edmonton Saturday morning. A spokesperson said police had worked with both the organizers of the festival as well as a “demonstration” taking place in the same area.
But, as “rising tensions became evident and in the interest of public safety,” EPS and the City of Edmonton cancelled the festival’s permit, EPS told CTV News Edmonton.
EPS says both the festival attendees and demonstrators left the area.
But around 11 a.m., the police service learned both groups had moved to Rosslyn in north Edmonton, near 132 Avenue and 113A Street.
That is where “an altercation took place between both groups,” EPS said.
Edmonton police watch crowds at a Rosslyn park on Aug. 19, 2023, after violence broke out at a protested Eritrean community event.
Dozens of police units were called in to break it up. Officers separated the groups and remained on scene until everyone left.
As of late Saturday afternoon, no arrests had been made and police were still investigating.
PEOPLE HURT AT OTHER ERITREAN EVENTS
Asfha told CTV News Edmonton the festival that had been organized “doesn’t represent all Eritreans.”
He and his group wore shirts and carried flags that were light blue in colour and featured an olive branch – the flag used in the 150s during the Federation of Ethiopia and Eritrea.
He said the flag used by the festival – Eritrea’s current flag – represents a “dictatorship.”
Michael Asfha was a part of a group that protested an Eritrean-themed event in Edmonton on Aug. 19, 2023, during which 11 people were hurt in a clash between attendees and protesters.
Eritrea’s president, Isaias Afwerki, has not held an election since becoming president three decades ago, when the country won independence from Ethiopia. Millions of residents have fled the country in order to avoid conditions such as forced military conscription.
Kyriakakos said it was a mistake to think of the festival as anything other than a celebration of culture and community.
“[Eritreans] are co-suffering with the unjust and unfair pressure that is happening to our people. And because they,” he said, referring to the protesters, “are considering we are part of that, unfortunately, the advocates of human rights, they came with a goal and hit people, broke cars, terrorized children.”
Nine people were hurt when violence broke out between attendees and protesters at an Eritrean festival in Toronto at the beginning of August. People were also hurt at recent Eritrean events in Germany and Sweden.
Those events made festival attendees wary, Kyriakakos said.
“People are very scared they are going to hurt their children, families and their wives. And that was the main reason there was a defensive position. Not an aggressive position,” he said.
“It’s not fair to put the aggressor and the demonstrator together with a peaceful participant. The peaceful participant may be acting in self defense.”
The organizer said he warned police of the potential for trouble ahead of Edmonton’s event.
“As with many events and public demonstrations, police worked closely with organizers of both groups ahead of this event to support citizens in their right to peaceful assembly and ensure public safety for both festival and demonstration attendees,” EPS said in a statement.
“The EPS continues to work closely with both groups to assist with facilitating peaceful interactions at future events.”
With files from CTV Edmonton’s Sean McClune, Nav Sangha, John Hanson, and The Canadian Press