Australia’s Old Parliament House saw its doors engulfed by a blaze on Thursday as an aboriginal rights protest outside of the building apparently went wrong.
Indigenous rights groups were protesting outside of the building on Thursday, when the fire began. A group called People’s Treaty had reportedly gathered at the scene over recent days, while other media reports suggested that several different groups were involved in the demonstrations, ranging from the “sovereign citizens” movement to those protesting Covid-19 measures and mandatory vaccinations.
Videos from the scene showed cheering and clapping to the beat of traditional aboriginal instruments, as the Old Parliament House’s entrance became engulfed by fire. The blaze could be seen sending billowing black smoke into the skies. Police were also seen slowly pushing the crowd away from the building that was still on fire.
In a separate incident, the crowd allegedly attacked some journalists that arrived at the scene to film the blaze, videos posted on social media showed. No arrests have been made following the incident so far.
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The blaze was under control in just around 20 minutes, according to the media. The fire still caused extensive damage to the building’s doors and firefighters were seen clearing the debris from the charred entrance.
— Siobhan Heanue (@siobhanheanue) December 30, 2021
Some protesters claimed that the fire was caused by a traditional smoking ceremony going wrong. Others blamed the police for attempts to disrupt the ceremony using pepper spray and thus allegedly causing the fire.
The Australian Capital Territory (ACT) policing operations commander, Linda Champion, confirmed the police did use a “small amount” of pepper spray against the protesters but denied it was linked to the fire. The blaze was a result of protesters lighting a fire “outside the front door,” she added.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison denounced what he called an “appalling” and “disgraceful” incident and demanded authorities act “swiftly and in accordance to the law.” The Old Parliament House was a home to Australia’s federal parliament between 1927 and 1988 and currently serves as the Museum of Australian Democracy. Its deputy director, Andrew Harper, said he was yet to get inside to assess the damage to the museum.