Parliament's $500,000 playground set on fire in shocking scenes as police circle in on protesters

Parliament's $500,000 playground opened in 2019 has been set on fire in shocking scenes as police circled in on the demonstration in Wellington. 

Firefighters could be seen entering Parliament grounds on Wednesday afternoon after what looked to be multiple fires on Parliament's front lawn, sending plumes of black smoke billowing into the air.

The playground, which cost $572,000 to build, was in flames, burning under a 100 year old Pōhutukawa tree. A nearby tent was also on fire. Multiple loud bangs and sirens rang out as police tried to clear away tents and other structures. A police chopper circled from above. 

The damage to Parliament grounds looks extensive. The forecourt, once boasting a healthy green lawn, is now dug up and covered in trash. It's also covered in hay - a remnant of the early days of the protest when House Speaker Trevor Mallard set sprinklers on the demonstrators. 

Police said in a statement on Wednesday afternoon that officers had removed some of the "makeshift infrastructure from the protest area around Parliament" such as tents, gazebos and toilets to "help restore freedom of movement in the area". 

Officers could be seen dragging away tent poles while at the same time facing off with angry protesters trying to hold their position. Police have, however, made significant gains.  

Police said Fire and Emergency NZ responded to "a number of small fires deliberately lit on Parliament grounds", which were eventually contained and there were no reports of injuries. 

Police arrested 38 protesters on Wednesday - on top of the 132 arrests made in weeks prior - and towed 30 vehicles during a major operation to clear the roads and restore order to Wellington after more than three weeks of occupation. 

"We were clear from the start that de-escalation was the preferred option. And during a period of engagement with protest leaders we were able to get in place tactics that de-escalated both the number of people and vehicles at the site," Police Commissioner Andrew Coster said on Wednesday. 

"However, we reached the stage where protest leaders were either unwilling, or unable, to affect meaningful change to the behaviour and the impact of the protest in Wellington.

"In the last week we have a changing mix in the make-up of the crowd at the protest - in particular we became concerned that those with good intentions were outnumbered by those with a willingness to use violence to effect their means."

The standoff on Wednesday morning quickly became violent, with footage showing a demonstrator kicking a police officer on the ground, a cop punching a protester, and people hurling bottles and spraying officers with what appeared to be a fire extinguisher. 

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who for weeks has refused to engage with the "illegal" demonstration, said on Wednesday protesters had been given ample opportunity to leave.

"It will be obvious to those who work in and around Parliament that the protest has at times been violent and increasingly fuelled by misinformation and sadly, conspiracy theories," she told reporters at the Beehive. 

"It has also become a location of interest. We know COVID has circulated within the protest and there have been hospitalisations as a result.

"Whatever point the protesters were making at the beginning was made but it is time for it to end. I urge all those still there to leave peacefully today."