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A demonstrator holds a flare during a protest outside the headquarters of Britain's Conservative Party in London on Wednesday. Although the demonstration was mostly peaceful, one group of protesters broke off from the main rally, smashed windows and set fires.
Leon Neal/Getty Images
Tens of thousands of students and lecturers marched through the middle of London on Wednesday in a protest that eventually turned violent, demonstrating against the British government's plans to raise university tuition fees and cut teaching budgets.
The demonstration took Britain by surprise: No one expected the crowd to be as large as it was; no one expected trouble. Organizers said more than 50,000 people took part.
Most of the students, professors and others who came to vent their anger did so peacefully, but one group broke off from the main rally, smashed windows and set fires. They threw eggs, sticks, bottles and a fire extinguisher at the police.
As the march passed a high-rise building that houses the headquarters of the Conservative Party, which heads the coalition government, some protesters smashed windows as others lit a bonfire of placards outside the building.
Office workers were evacuated as several dozen demonstrators managed to get into the lobby, scattering furniture, smashing CCTV cameras, spraying graffiti and chanting "Tories Out," while outside police faced off against a crowd that occasionally hurled food, soda cans and placards.
"We are destroying the building just like they are destroying our chances of affording higher education," said Corin Parkin, 20, a student at London's City University.
Protesters took over the roof of the building.
Authorities said 10 people were injured and several dozen arrested.
London's Metropolitan Police commissioner described the day's events as an "embarrassment" for the city and its police, acknowledging his force hadn't anticipated violence.
The National Union of Students, which was the main organizer of the march, criticized the violence.
"I absolutely condemn the small minority of students and others that have gone off for this splinter demonstration," said Aaron Porter, the group's president. "This was not part of the plan, and frankly detracts from the message which 50,000 other students tried to make a peaceful protest about the extravagant government cuts."
Britain has been largely untouched by the massive protests against government austerity cuts that have swept some parts of Europe. This is its largest demonstration since the government unveiled a program last month of huge spending cuts. Opponents to those cuts are now mobilizing.
The students are protesting proposals to raise university tuition fees by up to three times to $14,000 a year. The government is also cutting teaching budgets by 40 percent.
Elsewhere, protesters were peaceful but determined.
"I am here because it is important that students stand up and shout about what is going on," said Anna Tennant-Siren, a student at the University of Ulster in Coleraine. "Politicians don't seem to care. They should be taking money from people who earn seven-figure salaries, not from students who don't have any money."
Britain's Liberal Democrats, who are part of the coalition government with the Conservatives, pledged during the country's election campaign to abolish fees. Protest leaders said they would attempt to use recall powers to oust lawmakers who break campaign promises on the issue.
While British tuition fees are modest compared with those at some U.S. colleges, British universities are public institutions. Opponents of the tuition increase have pointed out that Prime Minister David Cameron and other members of the government attended elite universities such as Oxford and Cambridge at a time when university education was free.
The previous Labour government of Prime Minister Tony Blair introduced the first fees for students soon after it was elected in 1997. Scotland abolished tuition fees in 2000, and in the rest of Britain the cost is capped at about $4,800 a year.
Cameron's government plans to triple that and cut funding to universities as it strives to slash $128 billion from public expenditures over the next four years.
Material from The Associated Press was used in this report