Scuffles between police and protesters on the streets of Montreal last night just yards away from a big party event supporting the F1 Grand Prix of Canada led to at least 28 people being arrested, say reports from Canada.

Four police vehicles were reported to have been vandalised by spray paint and having their windows smashed, and police responded to being pelted by thrown objects from the crowd with blasts of tear gas and pepper spray as they moved in to contain the unrest.

The two-hour confrontation followed a running battle of wits between the police and a group of around 900 protesters moving through the city banging pots and pans. The incident lasted about four hours and finally calmed down after about 1am.

The protests originally started life over the raising of student tuition fees by the local Quebec government, but has since developed into more general social unrest over the state of the economy and against capitalism as a whole.

"This is not about school any more," one local Montreal resident told reporters on Saturday. "I don't even call them protests, I call them anarchy."

Police said that the majority of arrests had been on assault charges, but around a dozen had been arrested under municipal by-laws rather than criminal violations. Police also interviewed a cab driver who allegedly drove his vehicle into a crowd of protesters - injuring three - but he was subsequently released.

With the Grand Prix being the area's biggest tourism draw of the year, it was inevitable that the race weekend would be drawn into the situation. Security at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve has been stepped up as a result of the protests, with the traditional curtain-raising "open day' event earlier this week having to be cancelled.

Police are also expected to maintain a higher than usual presence on the streets of downtown Montreal on Sunday and in particular ensure that there is no disruption to the subway service to the Ile Notre Dame which is the main way spectators get to the race.

Police had to respond to a bomb threat at the Longueuil/Universit?-de-Sherbrooke station on Sunday morning that caused a brief disruption to the metro line shortly before 8am. The threat was a hoax and a 40-year-old man was subsequently arrested.

Student protest websites are calling on supporters to board the trains en masse at the same time to prevent anybody else from getting on: "Upon arriving on the island you can turn around and start again. Just for fun," said one site.

Some have upheld the protesters right to carry out the action, saying that freedom of expression was what separated Canada from Bahrain, which also saw a security threat to the F1 Grand Prix there earlier this year.

Former F1 world champion Jacques Villeneuve took a different line, and even likened the proposed subway disruption to "terrorism" if it went ahead.

"It's time for people to wake up and stop loafing about," he said on Thursday, after an earlier protest had led to the arrest of 37 people. ""It's lasted long enough. We heard them. We listened. They should stop. It's costing the city a fortune. It makes no sense," he continued, adding that "It's becoming a little bit ridiculous. They spoke, we heard, and now it's time to go back to school."

Others pointed out that targeting the Grand Prix made little sense: "Doesn't the Grand Prix bring in a lot of revenue that could help pay for tuition?" asked one visitor to the city, supported by data suggesting that the race brings in around 100 million Canadian dollars in tourism expenditure to the region.

One feminist group even claimed that the Grand Prix was responsible for a surge in sex tourism in the area, and held an earlier peaceful demonstration comprised of over a hundred people objecting to the sexual exploitation of women at the event.

"There is an immense pressure on sex workers during the Grand Prix," one Montreal student told reporters.


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