(ATTN: RECASTS headline, lead; UPDATES paras 2-4, 7, 9-10 with more info; RESTRUCTURES)
SEOUL, Oct. 3 (Yonhap) -- Conservative groups staged "drive-thru" anti-government rallies in southern Seoul on Saturday after winning court approval to hold demonstrations only under certain conditions to prevent another coronavirus resurgence from mass gatherings.
The protesters stopped short of reaching central Seoul near the presidential office, as the Gwanghwamun area was practically sealed off by tight police cordons set up to prevent any illegal protests.
Two separate groups staged rallies involving nine vehicles each on National Foundation Day to protest the government's prosecution reform and other issues. They took off from the southern district of Seocho on a route that included the neighborhoods of former and current justice ministers, and were planning to make their way up to the central Gwanghwamun, where they were going to hold press conferences.
The scaled-down rallies took place after a local court conditionally approved the demonstrations based on freedom of assembly as long as they comply with strict anti-infection measures.
The court allowed nine people -- each in their cars -- to hold a rally for two hours but set forth conditions such as banning the lowering of car windows and the chanting of slogans during the rally.
The demonstrations came as the government has vowed a stern response against mass rallies after anti-government protests on Aug. 15 were partly blamed for a flare-up in new virus cases.
No major clashes broke out between the protesters and law enforcement, as the demonstrations proceeded within the confines of the rules set forth by the court.
Police said in a statement the rallies ended without a mass gathering of people, thanks to the measures taken to prevent a resurgence of the coronavirus and citizens' compliance with the measures.
But the police took stringent steps to virtually seal off Gwanghwamun, installing around 90 checkpoints at entries to Seoul to screen vehicles and blocking streets and alleys with police vehicles. About 800 police officers were mobilized to respond to protests.
Some subway lines skipped their stops at Gwanghwamun Station and nearby stations until 5 p.m. Officials also set up fences in Gwanghwamun Square, where outdoor rallies are often held, denying public access to the plaza.
Except for the two drive-thru protests, a court had rejected conservative groups' request to suspend the Seoul municipality's bans on their plans for rallies involving some 1,000 participants or a protest parade with about 200 cars on the national holiday.
"Legal rallies need to be respected, as the Constitution stipulates freedom of assembly. But as for illegal demonstrations, police should respond to them with a no-tolerance principle," Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun said during his visit to the national police agency.
Despite the government's warning, several conservative groups attempted to enter the public plaza, but they were foiled by police. Instead, they held press conferences in the vicinity and condemned the government for denying freedom of assembly.
Police also thwarted some right-wing activists' attempt to hold a rally in central Seoul and disbanded them.
The government has issued warnings against illegal anti-government rallies planned by some conservative groups on concerns that the mass gatherings could hamper the country's efforts to contain the spread of the new coronavirus.
Thousands of people, led by conservative groups, held massive rallies on Aug. 15, the country's Liberation Day, in central Seoul.
The country's daily infections spiked to triple-digit figures for more than a month from Aug. 14, until they slowed down on the back of tougher virus curbs. Cases tied to the rallies reached more than 600.
Health authorities remain on alert over a potential rebound in COVID-19 cases after the Chuseok fall harvest holiday that ran from Wednesday till Friday.
In a preemptive measure, the Seoul city government banned all rallies of 10 or more people and designated parts of central Seoul as no-assembly zones. The capital also banned rallies in the form of car parades.
Under the Level 2 social distancing rules imposed at a nationwide level, outdoor gatherings of 100 or more people are prohibited and indoor meetings of 50 or more are also banned.
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