France should halt use of controversial riot guns: rights chief

France's rights chief called Thursday for the government to suspend use of riot guns which have reportedly injured dozens of people during the "yellow vest" protests over the past two months. French police are equipped with so-called defence ball launchers (LBDs) that shoot 40-millimetre (1.6-inch) rubber and foam rounds that are used in riot-control operations. Often called Flash Balls after the name of one producer of such weapons, they are designed to not penetrate the skin while still packing enough power to stop individuals from advancing. But such "less lethal" weapons have been blamed for several serious injuries in recent years, including protesters who have lost an eye after being hit by the rounds in the head. On Saturday in the southwestern city of Bordeaux a volunteer firefighter participating in a yellow vest demonstration was struck in the temple, putting him in a coma from which he has yet to awaken. "Let's remove the hazardous risks of these weapons by suspending their use," Jacques Toubon, head of France's independent human rights authority, said at a press conference in Paris. Toubon said the government should focus on "preventing rather than treating" injuries from the use of riot guns during the protests. Twelve of the 25 complaints lodged with Toubon's office since the protests erupted have involved flash ball injuries. Use of the weapons has infuriated many anti-government protesters who accuse the police of unnecessary violence that has exacerbated tensions since the demonstrations began in November. The rallies have often degenerated into pitched battles with officers as well as vandalism including torched cars and looted shops. Police and government officials have defended the use of LBDs while refusing to say how many people may have been injured by the weapons, which officers are not supposed to aim at a person's head. According to the Disarm collective and independent journalist David Dufresne, nearly 100 people have been seriously injured since the yellow vest protests began, most of them with flash balls, including around 15 who have lost an eye. "We're being attacked with glass bottles, cinder blocks, acid and bolts. An LBD is a 'firearm' that scares people. If they took them away from us, no officer will want to work during the protests," a police source told AFP. Last month the European Court of Human Rights rejected a request by a French lawyer seeking a temporary ban on their use. Some 3,000 people have been hurt in yellow vest-related violence, including 1,000 policemen, according to authorities. And 10 people have died, most of them killed in traffic accidents, including road blockades, linked to the protests.