PRINCE Charles and his wife Camilla came under attack and several government buildings were damaged during violent clashes between protesters and police after MPs voted narrowly to allow English universities to increase tuition fees.
• Charles and Camilla react as their car is attacked by student protesters in London. Picture: AP
The Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall were unharmed in the incident, which happened as they made their way to the Palladium Theatre for the Royal Variety Performance.
But police and protesters were taken to hospital following a series of running battles in the Westminster area, after MPs voted to raise tuition fees to up to 9,000.
As many as 30,000 anti-fees demonstrators had converged on central London to protest against the controversial policy. The first signs of violence came when hundreds of people invaded the National Gallery and occupied a room containing millions of pounds worth of artwork.
At 1:30pm the crowd started walking quickly away from Trafalgar Square, along the Mall, towards Buckingham Palace.
Police said the Christmas tree in the square was set alight, and one demonstrator was seen swinging from a Union flag attached to the Cenotaph. Hundreds of armed police were waiting for the protesters at Parliament, which was barricaded by a double row of steel barriers.
The march was expected to carry on to Victoria Embankment, but a large number of protesters remained in Parliament Square.
A number of benches were set ablaze as demonstrators fought running battles with police at the Victoria Street entrance to the square. Missiles were hurled at officers and statues were vandalised, including that of Sir Winston Churchill.
After MPs passed the vote raising fees, protesters set alight a discarded maintenance shed. In the early evening, they targeted the Treasury, trying to gain access to the building by smashing windows, using hammers, spades and stones.
After being denied entry, they moved to the Supreme Court, where they smashed windows.
Other protesters later rampaged along Oxford Street, targeting a number of stores in the shopping thoroughfare.
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Within minutes, the barriers erected to stop protesters occupying the centre of Parliament Square had been ripped up and were used as weapons by the rioters against the police.
As darkness fell, many police in riot gear were seen taking off their luminous yellow tops and some of the lights appeared to be dimmed as baton-wielding officers clashed with protesters.
As violence raged, demonstration leaders called out on a loud-hailer that they were also there for the "pensioners, people on welfare and on all those who will lose out as a result of government cuts".
Their late defiant cry at the end of a day of carnage was, "We'll be back".
Riot squad officers began to shepherd the crowd, which included thousands of campaigners who had planned a vocal but peaceful protest, away from Parliament Square and over Westminster Bridge towards the South Bank of the River Thames.
Scotland Yard last night said 22 arrests had been made - one for being drunk and disorderly, three for criminal damage, two for arson, nine for violent disorder, three for assault on police and four for burglary.A police spokesman said 12 officers were injured, with six needing hospital treatment, and that 43 protesters were taken to hospital, with 36 being taken by ambulance.
Police condemned the behaviour, with Superintendent Julia Pendry describing the demonstrators' actions as "outrageous".
She added: "This is not peaceful protests at all - this is acts of wanton vandalism, wanton violence and a complete disrespect for central London.
"Not only have we had attacks on Parliament, the attacks on our officers, we've now had the Supreme Court that has come under the attack of vandalism, and the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall have also come under attack in Argyll Street.
"We have now got a number of protesters rampaging their way through London, committing acts of violence, acts of terror, not only to Christmas shoppers and to tourists, but to innocent people in London going about their business.
"It is appalling, disrespectful behaviour to everybody else in London."
When the royal couple arrived at the theatre, Camilla appeared shaken, but the couple then relaxed and smiled and joked with Royal Variety Show performers. After the performance, she said she was "fine", adding: "First time for everything."
Prime Minister David Cameron said it was "shocking and regrettable" that a car carrying the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall was attacked.
He added those who came "determined to provoke violence, attack the police and cause as much damage to property as possible… must face the full force of the law".
Outside the theatre, the couple's Rolls-Royce was left with a badly cracked passenger-side rear window and was spattered with paint thrown in the attack.Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Paul Stephenson said: "It's been a very long day, it's been a very stretching day for the Metropolitan Police Service and it has been a very disappointing day for London, in my opinion.
"We did everything we could to facilitate peaceful protest, and, in reality, whilst I'm sure the vast majority came here to want to protest peacefully, a significant number of people behaved very badly today."
He added: "We want to see people peacefully protesting on the streets of London if that's what they wish to do, but the behaviour today is wholly unacceptable, and we will now mount a very serious and very detailed investigation to try and identify the perpetrators of the violence today."
Sir Paul rejected claims that the police had exacerbated problems by containing the protesters.
He said: "I think that is, frankly, utter nonsense. I think anybody who has been watching the pictures of the violence today will just want to condemn it.
"Any right-minded individual, including peaceful protesters who want to make a point, will condemn what has happened today and, frankly, that is just an excuse that people are hiding behind and it is not acceptable."
Nick Littler, 20, a student from Royal Holloway College, said: "After the vote, everyone was miserable and we were all just drifting away. The police were letting one person out every ten minutes."
One woman who was caught up in the protest as it descended on Argyll Street, in the centre of the West End, spoke of her fear over the incident.
Jessica Vieira, a 25-year-old fashion company employee, said: "They closed off the (Oxford] Circus station and all the police were pulling everybody back.
"The guys were lighting bins and throwing them around, the police were getting a little bit hectic. It was pretty scary."