GOUDA, Netherlands - Dutch police on Saturday arrested 90 people protesting for and against the controversial "Black Pete" figure at the start of the traditional gift-giving festival of Saint Nicholas in the central city of Gouda, officials said.
"Sixty people were arrested for demonstrating in unauthorised areas, and 30 for disturbing the peace," during the children-oriented procession attended by thousands and broadcast live on national television, police spokeswoman Yvette Verboon told AFP.
"Arrests were made on both sides," Verboon said amid an increasingly acrimonious and racially-charged debate in the Netherlands.
State broadcaster NOS showed images of minor scuffles breaking out on the main square, where Saint Nicholas appears on a balcony, with protesters unfurling a large banner reading "Black Pete Racism".
Prime Minister Mark Rutte called the arrests "deeply, deeply sad".
"Everyone can talk about Black Pete's colour but you can't disturb a children's party like that," he told NOS.
Public prosecutor spokesman Wouter Bos said all those held for demonstrating in the wrong place were anti-Black Pete protesters and they would be fined 220 euros (S$360) each.
The fate of those arrested for public disorder offences "will be decided later," he said.
The debate around Black Pete, the jolly sidekick of the Dutch Saint Nicholas, called Zwarte Piet in Dutch, has divided the Netherlands.
Many say that Pete - traditionally dressed in a gaudy medieval costume with a blackened face, red lips and an afro wig - is a racist stereotype dating from the colonial era.
Black Pete's defenders say he is black from coming down the chimney and refuse to admit there might be anything racist about the historic character.
This year Saint Nicholas and dozens of Petes arrived in Gouda aboard a gift-filled boat from Spain in a national event looked forward to by children.
For the first time, the mayor introduced other coloured Petes, angering many.
They include "Cheese Petes" with yellow faces, "Stroopwafel Petes" with striped, light brown faces resembling the traditional Dutch syrup biscuit of the same name and a white-faced "Clown Pete".
Nevertheless, protesters attended Sunday's procession wearing T-shirts reading "Black Pete Colonial Symbol" or "Black Pete Doesn't Fit".
"Some black kids feel hurt at this time of year," said a man at the procession who gave his name as Knoledge.
"It's a real shame that in a civilised country, in 2014, you still have to defend equality," he told AFP.
"If we were seen as equals, Black Pete would have been changed a long time ago so that this celebration is for all Dutch people," he said.
Fellow Dutchman Marco said: "This is how I celebrate, how my grandmother and grandfather and parents celebrated, and I don't think it's racist." "Police asked protesters to leave (the main square) and go to the designated place near the train station," said Gouda municipality spokeswoman Monique Neve.
"They didn't obey and police took the necessary measures," she said.
At a press conference after the procession, the man playing the role of Saint Nicholas was asked if he had followed the Black Pete debate.
"It will all work itself out," he said. "Nobody should be worried."