By Joanna Plucinska and Anna Koper
WARSAW (Reuters) - Tens of thousands of Poles blocked city streets in cars, on bicycles and on foot on Monday on the fifth day of protests against a Constitutional Court ruling that amounts to a near-total ban on abortion in the predominantly Catholic country.
Carrying banners reading "Enough", "I won't be your martyr" and "I want choice, not terror", protesters gathered in several dozen towns and cities in defiance of coronavirus restrictions.
"I will be here until the end," said Piotr Wybanski, 31, in one of Warsaw's main thoroughfares. Speaking of his five sisters, mother and grandmother he said: "I came here with my fiancee and I fight for all of them."
"I need to fight for the future of my daughter," said Justyna, 37, who declined to give her family name.
Scuffles erupted between protesters and far-right groups who broke through a police cordon separating them in front a church elsewhere in Warsaw, prompting the police to use pepper spray. In the city of Wroclaw, abortion rights activists used flares.
The court ruling last Thursday fuelled an unprecedented backlash against the Roman Catholic Church in Poland, which is seen as having close links with the conservative nationalist Law and Justice (PiS) government.
It has also heightened criticism of PiS, which came to power five years ago on a promise to instil more traditional values.
Crowds gathered again near the house of PiS leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski in an affluent Warsaw neighbourhood, as police in vans with flashing lights kept them away and a helicopter hovered overhead.
After the ruling goes into effect, abortion will be banned in the case of foetal abnormalities and will be legal only in the case of rape, incest or a threat to the woman's health.
Critics say the court has acted on behalf of the party, which has in the past stepped back from efforts to tighten abortion rules. PiS denies that.
The Constitutional Court was part of the government's sweeping overhaul of the justice system which the European Commission says subverted the rule of law by politicising courts. The government says the court is independent.
In the capital and elsewhere, groups formed around church buildings, with local media reporting far-right groups were gathering to protect them. Late in the evening, flares were launched close to the PiS headquarters in central Warsaw.
The government has called for a halt to the protests because of a rising number of coronavirus cases overwhelming the health care system, though except for isolated scuffles with the police the protests have been largely peaceful.
"What's happening in recent days is absolutely unacceptable," Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki's chief of staff, Michal Dworczyk, told private radio RMF. "Pandemic rules are being broken."
The government said military police would be called in to help enforce pandemic rules, which include an obligation to wear face masks in public, from Wednesday. The defence ministry said on Twitter the decision was not connected with the protests.
Poland recorded 10,241 new coronavirus cases on Monday, compared with a record of 13,632 on Friday.
More protests are planned across Poland later this week, including a mass gathering in Warsaw on Friday.
(Additional reporting by Anna Wlodarczak-Semczuk, Agnieszka Barteczko and Jakub Stezycki; Writing by Justyna Pawlak; Editing by Nick Macfie and David Holmes)