'Black Pete' character sparks clashes in the Netherlands

Rival protesters have clashed in the Netherlands over traditional pre-Christmas celebrations that involve a character in "blackface" make-up.

Unrest occurred in several towns where annual festivals have been taking place to welcome the arrival of Sinterklaas, a Dutch figure said to be the origin of Santa Claus.

A row has been ongoing in the country over the last couple of years over the use of performers in the celebrations who blacken their faces to play Sinterklaas's assistant called Zwarte Piet, or Black Pete.

Police in Rotterdam tweeted to say they had arrested three people, as those calling for Black Pete to be abolished clashed with traditionalists.

In the northern city of Leeuwarden, officers said they stopped "two groups getting into a fight".

Police also separated groups to prevent a confrontation in nearby Groningen, and De Telegraaf newspaper reported on confrontations in several other towns.

Witnesses described "fighting", "chaos", "abuse" and eggs being thrown.

Football supporters of some of the Netherlands' biggest clubs were among those involved, the paper said, along with the anti-Islam group Pegida.

In other locations, police and marshals were used to keep the anti-Pete protesters away from the parades.

Prime minister Mark Rutte had appealed for calm on Friday, saying: "I think society agrees on one thing: we grant children the magic of the Sinterklaas party."

In Zaandijk, north of Amsterdam, where the parade was televised, a boat carrying Sinterklaas sailed into the harbour accompanied by dozens of Black Petes, their faces painted in varying shades.

Thousands of youngsters, many wearing traditional costumes, lined the streets with their parents and grabbed sweets being handed out.

Every November, Dutch towns hold the popular parades, symbolising the arrival of Sinterklaas by boat, at which Zwarte Piets throw gingerbread to the crowd.

Sinterklaas is based on the 4th century religious figure St Nicholas, who Dutch legend says passed through Netherlands on his way to Spain, from where he returns annually.

The origins of the Zwarte Piet character are disputed, but theories claim they may relate to medieval depictions of St Nicholas being helped by the devil, the saint having an assistant who would take bad children back to Spain, and that assistant being a Moor.

A Twitter account of one of the groups involved, Stop Blackface, said they had received widespread support.

The group tweeted in Dutch: "Large groups throughout the country who are fighting for a party for all kids. We get reports of abuse, physical violence but also a lot of ♥."