Australian police arrest six at Black Lives Matter rally for breaching virus ban

SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australian police on Tuesday arrested six people and ordered about 50 others to disperse after they gathered in Sydney for a Black Lives Matter protest despite an official ban because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The march was planned to highlight the deaths of Aboriginal people in custody, building on momentum from global rallies for racial justice and against police brutality.

Police had said the gathering was unauthorised and in breach of coronavirus prevention measures, a position backed by a court ruling on Monday, as Australia tackles a spike in COVID-19 cases.

Police said they arrested six people before the scheduled start of the march in a public park and ordered others to leave the area, saying people had been given enough warning to stay away.

"Over the last 24 hours, we have said time and time again, do not turn up," New South Wales Assistant Police Commissioner Mick Willing told reporters in Sydney. "We are in the middle of a pandemic."

Of the six people arrested, five were each fined A$1,000 for defying the court order banning the gathering. The sixth was fined for using offensive language.

Reuters estimated there were about 50 people gathered on a rainy day in the city, well short of the 500 people that organisers had expected to attend.

Australia on Monday reported its highest ever single-day increase in cases after a flare-up of infections in Victoria state. Neighbouring NSW, of which Sydney is the capital, is also battling several virus clusters.

Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt had made a plea for people not to attend the rally, urging them to instead use social media platforms or arrange a silent vigil outside their homes.

Australia has recorded about 15,000 cases of COVID-19 and 167 deaths, though authorities fear both will rise.

(Reporting by Renju Jose, Colin Packham, Jill Gralow and James Redmayne; Editing by Jane Wardell)