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updated 12/10/2010 3:14:30 PM ET 2010-12-10T20:14:30

British police came under intense pressure on Friday after protesters furious at a controversial hike in university fees attacked the car carrying Prince Charles and his wife, Camilla, in London.

In a major security breach, demonstrators set upon the heir to the throne's Rolls Royce as it drove through London's busy West End on its way to a theater on Thursday . A group of up to 20 struck it with fists, sticks and bottles, breaking a window and splattering the gleaming black vehicle with paint.

In the frenzy, some chanted "off with their heads!"

It was Britain's worst political violence in years.

Adnan Nazir, a 23-year-old podiatrist who was following the protesters, said Charles, 62, kept his calm, gently pushing his 63-year-old wife toward the floor to get her out of the line of fire.

Newsweek: Are London protests being hijacked?

"Charles got her on the floor and put his hands on her," Nazir said. "Charles was still waving and giving the thumb's up.

"It was just a surreal thing," he said. "It was completely manic."

Charles' office, Clarence House, said the royal couple was unharmed. But the attack took police completely by surprise and raises serious security questions.

Investigation into violence
The chief of the Metropolitan Police, Paul Stephenson, said the force would launch an investigation into Thursday's violence.

Stephenson also said the area had been "thoroughly recced," or investigated, just before protesters surrounded the car, according to The Daily Telegraph.

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As thousands of students were corralled by police near Parliament, some strummed guitars and sang Beatles songs — but others hurled chunks of paving stones at police and smashed windows in a government building.

Slideshow: London protests (on this page)

Another group ran riot through the busy shopping streets of London's West End, smashing store windows and setting fire to a giant Christmas tree in Trafalgar Square.

Police condemned the "wanton vandalism." They said 43 protesters and 12 officers had been injured, while 22 people were arrested. Police said the number of arrests would likely rise.

Newsweek: Are London protests being hijacked?

Home Secretary Theresa May said that "what we are seeing in London tonight, the wanton vandalism, smashing of windows, has nothing to do with peaceful protest."

The violence overshadowed the tuition vote, a crucial test for governing Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition, and for the government's austerity plans to reduce Britain's budget deficit.

It was approved 323-302 in the House of Commons, a close vote given the government's 84-seat majority.

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Many in the thousands-strong crowd outside booed and chanted "shame" when they heard the result of the vote, and pressed against metal barriers and lines of riot police penning them in.

Earlier small groups of protesters threw flares, billiard balls and paint bombs, and officers, some on horses, rushed to reinforce the security cordon.

World Blog: A non-royal account of student violence in London's capital

Education is not for sale'
The scuffles broke out after students marched through central London and converged on Parliament Square, waving placards and chanting "education is not for sale" to cap weeks of nationwide protests aimed at pressuring lawmakers to reverse course.

Video: Violent student protests turn London upside down

The vote put Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg and his Liberal Democrat party in an awkward spot. Liberal Democrats signed a pre-election pledge to oppose any such tuition hike, and reserved the right to abstain in the vote even though they are part of the governing coalition proposing the change.

Those protesting were particularly incensed by the broken pledge from Clegg's party.

"I'm here because the Liberal Democrats broke their promise," said 19-year-old Kings College student Shivan David. "I don't think education should be free but I do think that tripling fees doesn't make any sense. We are paying more for less."

Clegg defended the proposals, saying the plans represent the "best possible choice" at a time of economic uncertainty.

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But under intense political pressure, 21 Liberal Democrat lawmakers — more than a third of the total — voted against the fee hike. Another eight, including at least one government minister, abstained.

Experts warned that fallout from the policy could pose a greater risk after the vote.

"The real danger for the government is not that they won't pass it through, but that it will be a policy fiasco," said Patrick Dunleavy, a political science professor at the London School of Economics. "By picking this fight with the student body ... the government seems to have gotten itself into choppy water."

Cameron's government describes the move as a painful necessity to deal with a record budget deficit and a sputtering economy. To balance its books, the U.K. passed a four-year package of spending cuts worth 81 billion pounds, which will eliminate hundreds of thousands of public sector jobs and cut or curtail hundreds of government programs.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Video: Royals attacked during London protests

  1. Closed captioning of: Royals attacked during London protests

    >>> an attack on prince charles and camilla's limo.

    >> reporter: good morning to you. this is a wild one. this is where the royals were headed here to the theater. but the streets were filled with protesters, some of them even set fire to the christmas tree at trefalge compare. the prime minister referred to the attack as both shocking and regrettable. but by all accounts, the protesters were as stunned to see the royals there as the royals were to see them. it was hardly the royal treatment. student demonstratoors pounded their limo with fists and paint. the stunned charles and his wife camilla, both in full formal attire, headed to a charity event in london 's famed west end .

    >> the responsibility for security is to keep their charges safe and this could have been a lot, a lot worse.

    >> reporter: the couple wasn't hurt, but the duchess of cornwall was rattled.

    >> she was shaken to the core, she was guided straight through and let's just say a stiff brandy was administered.

    >> all across london students protested the government's plan to raise tuition. the mayhem spread to one of london 's most popular tourist areas. a dozen officers were hurt as well as 40 students. these days much of europe shares britain's pain, with more protests expected.

    >> i try to have some sympathy and i think now by attacking the royals they have really turned against them because they are very well liked and well loved.

    >> reporter: still with a heavily anticipated royal wedding just four months away, the latest violence on london 's streets will force the royal family to reassess security. and today the head of the royal fleet said the route had been checked just minutes before the royals went through there and that it was safe and clear. they also said that the royal police used restraint by not opening fire on the protesters.

    >> i guess it could have been worse. peter alexander in london .

Photos: London student protests

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  1. Angry protesters in London attack a car containing Prince Charles and his wife Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, on Thursday. Protesters cracked a window and hit the Rolls Royce with paint. The car then drove off. Protesters had earlier clashed with police outside British parliament as the government approved plans to increase university tuition fees. (Matt Dunham / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. British riot police clash with protesters outside Parliament Square in London. (Carl De Souza / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. A protester throws a brick at the window of the Treasury building during student demonstrations. (Carl Court / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Riot police hold their shields up to protect windows inside the Treasury in Parliament Square. (Peter Macdiarmid / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. A vandalized telephone box in Parliament Square. (Carl Court / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Mounted riot police ride through Parliament Square. Small groups of protesters tore down barricades and threw paint bombs as police with batons fended off others in attempts to reinforce a security cordon near Parliament. (Carl Court / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Student protesters stand in front of a fire in London's Parliament Square. (Peter Macdiarmid / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Lines of British riot police clash with rows of British students in Parliament Square against a backdrop of Big Ben. Tens of thousands of students marched on Parliament as MPs prepared to vote on raising university tuition fees. The proposals, which could see students being forced to pay up to 10,000 euros per year, have sparked outrage. (Andy Rain / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Demonstrators and police officers are surrounded by red smoke in Parliament Square. (Stefan Wermuth / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. A student wields a long stick at advancing police on horseback. (Andy Rain / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Paint covers a police officer on Dec. 9. (Dan Kitwood / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. A protester stands on a barrier in Parliament Square. (Oli Scarff / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. British riot police clash with demonstrators in Parliament Square. (Carl Court / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. British police medics carry away an injured protester. (Sang Tan / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. A police officer is helped by a medic during a protest in Westminster in central London. Demonstrators threw objects at police in the square in front of Parliament. (Stefan Wermuth / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. A protestor is detained by police during clashes in Parliament Square. Students were protesting about a plan to raise tuition fees from about 3,300 British pounds to 9,000 pounds. (Ben Stansall / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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