MADRID — Young demonstrators who camped out in one of Madrid's busiest squares to protest bleak economic prospects began leaving the plaza to squads of cleaners Sunday after voting to end more than three weeks of vociferous protest.
The protests began May 15 and spread to cities across Spain and elsewhere in Europe, striking a chord with hundreds of thousands of sympathizers.
Some participants voted to continue the protest against high unemployment and political corruption but a majority raised their hands at meeting Wednesday giving their approval to a proposal to take down the camp at Puerta del Sol opposite town hall.
"We all feel a bit sad but the future of this movement is progress," said protester Raul Rincon. "Cleaning up, leaving and moving forward is a step that needed to be taken for our movement to grow up."
Cleaners, most of them demonstrators, began to move in to scrub the square clean as fellow activists angry over Spain's jobless rate dismantled camp and moved on to other urban locations bearing placards saying, "We're not leaving, we're expanding."
Spanish authorities at times appeared not to know how to deal with protests which readily acknowledged that recent pro-democracy uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East had served as an inspiration.
One complicating factor was that Spain held regional and municipal elections on May 22. Election rules state that political activities like demonstrations and rallies must end for a "day of reflection" before ballots and the protesters made no effort to abide by that rule.
A week after the elections riot police charged at protesters in Barcelona's main Catalunya Square firing rubber bullets and wielding truncheons in a bid to clear away their makeshift camp, leaving more than 100 people injured.
Then on Saturday Madrid riot police tried forcefully to clear demonstrators who had gathered to jeer as Alfredo Perez-Rubalcaba, Madrid's newly re-elected mayor, was sworn in at a building not far from Puerta del Sol.
Nearly two years of recession have left Spain with a 21.3-percent unemployment rate, the highest in the eurozone, and saddled with debt problems.
The jobless rate jumps to 35 percent for people aged 16 to 29, and many young, highly educated Spaniards can't find jobs as the eurozone's No. 4 economy struggles.