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Helsinki braces for demonstrations – and counter-demonstrations

Many events, including political marches and a fireworks display, are scheduled for central Helsinki on Independence Day afternoon and evening. Police advise motorists to avoid the downtown area.

'612' marchers heading toward Hietaniemi Cemetery on 6 December 2016. Image: Jyrki Lyytikkä / Yle

Helsinki police say they have been notified of around 10 marches and demonstrations in the city on Wednesday as the country celebrates the 100th anniversary of its independence.

The four largest events are scheduled for central Helsinki and the Hakaniemi and Töölö districts between 3 and 7 pm. They will cause traffic delays and detours, says Superintendent Juha Hakola of Helsinki Police.

"In previous years these events have attracted anywhere from a few hundred people to a few thousand. And we'll certainly be somewhere between that this time as well," Hakola tells Yle.

A group of neo-Nazis plan to gather on Narinkkatori square at 4 pm. The Nordic Resistance Movement, which was recently outlawed by Pirkanmaa District Court, is promoting a march on its website under the name "Kohti vapautta!" ("Toward Freedom"). It is to head up Mannerheimintie, past Töölö Sports Hall and on to the Mäntymäki field between Töölö Bay and the Olympic Stadium by around 6 pm.

Swedish neo-Nazis banned

Meanwhile some extreme nationalists are arranging the annual 612 torchlight procession, taking the name from the date of Finnish independence. In previous years, members of the Nordic Resistance Movement have also participated in the march. It is scheduled to leave at 6.30 pm from Töölö Square – about a kilometre from Mäntymäki. From Töölöntori, the procession will head toward the military cemetery at Hietaniemi in western Helsinki.

There may be fewer marchers than organisers expected, as a group of Swedish members of the Nordic Resistance Movement was blocked from boarding a ship sailing from Stockholm to Turku. They were planning to take part in the Helsinki marches, but were barred from the Viking Line ferry Amorella. Viking Lines communications director Johanna Boijer-Svahnström told Yle they were denied entry in order to ensure safety on board.

Children's event moved to stadium

Meanwhile a family event that was originally scheduled to take place at Töölö Square has been moved to the nearby Töölö football stadium for safety reasons.

Helsinki Mayor Jan Vapaavuori promised on Tuesday to improve communications to avoid such double booking of a public space for different events at the same time in future. He added that while he does not share the 612 marchers' values, they have a legal right to gather, as long as it occurs peacefully.

Leftists, anarchists and students

At the other end of the political spectrum, some self-described leftist youth and anarchists are arranging a counter-demonstration under the rubric "Helsinki Without Nazis". They are gathering on Hakaniemi Square at 3.15 pm before marching toward the city centre, ending up in the park by Hesperiankatu in Töölö.

Also marching through the downtown area will be the traditional university students' torchlight procession. It begins around 5 pm from Hietaniemi Cemetery along Mannerheimintie and the Esplanade to Senate Square, near the Presidential Palace.

Fireworks over the harbour

Streets will also be closed due to other events including the Independence Day Ball at the Presidential Palace, which begins around 7 pm, as well as fireworks over the South Harbour, scheduled for 10.15 pm.

Helsinki police advise motorists to avoid entering the city centre by car this afternoon or evening.

Yle will be streaming coverage of the various demonstrations and marches beginning at 3.30 pm on Yle Areena.