Tensions ran high and some violence erupted on Saturday as hundreds of counter-protesters faced off with white nationalists and white supremacists ahead of a far-right rally named “Unite the Right” in Virginia scheduled for later in the day.

Thousands of white nationalists, including supporters of the Ku Klux Klan white supremacist group, turned out in Charlottesville, a quiet university town, planning to remove a statue of General Robert E. Lee, who led Confederate forces in the US Civil War.

The counter-protesters included members of Black Lives Matter, faith leaders and antifa (anti-fascist), a far-left group whose activists often dress in black and wear balaclavas.

Members of the far-right groups used smoke bombs and pepper spray against the counter-demonstrators, on a number of occasions breaking the line to beat them with sticks or throw water bottles at them, as seen in footage from the scene posted on social media. Counter-protesters also sometimes charged at the nationalist groups.

Chants including “Black Lives Matter,” “No Nazis, No KKK, No Fascist USA,” were heard, as well as, on the other side, “Fuck you, faggots” and “Blood and soil,” a racist German phrase coined in the late 19th century and popularized with the rise of Nazism.

Confederate flags and some Nazi memorabilia were also on display.

The march has drawn well-known far-right figures, including the leader of the so-called “alt-right” Richard Spencer, a white nationalist who was famously punched in the face in Washington after US President Donald Trump’s inauguration, a moment that was caught on video and circulated worldwide.

Earlier, the counter-demonstrators shouted “From the Midwest to the South, punch a Nazi in the mouth,” and “Nazi scum” at far-right attendees gathering at Emancipation Park in the city where the rally will be held.

Men wearing shields and helmets and carrying flags of various white nationalist groups were seen filing in to the park, which was being blocked off to counter-protesters and the media by members of a number of state militias wearing fatigues and carrying weapons, including assault rifles.

One man, who appeared to be from one of the white nationalist groups, shouted “anti-white, out of my sight” at the counter-demonstrators, in a live feed posted on Facebook.

At one point, a “we have already won” chant emanated from the crowd, a likely reference to the election of Trump.

A large police presence was securing the rally and The National Guard was on stand-by in case violence and unrest erupts, following a Friday night march which saw white nationalists beat up counter-protesters.

Virginia’s governor on Friday urged people to stay away from the Saturday rally.

“I want to urge my fellow Virginians who may consider joining either in support or opposition to the planned rally to make alternative plans,” Governor Terry McAuliffe said in a statement.

“The Charlottesville event could be a potentially historic showcase of hate, bringing together more extremists in one place than we have seen in at least a decade,” said Oren Segal, director of the Center on Extremism at the Anti-Defamation League, a group that monitors and combats anti-Semitism.

On Friday night, hundreds of torch-wielding white supremacists marched through the University of Virginia campus, chanting racist slogans and clashing with a small group of counter-demonstrators.

In videos of the march, which lasted about 20 minutes late Friday, the far-right activists could be seen using the torches and ropes to beat the counter-demonstrators next to a statue of Thomas Jefferson.

Many of them chanted “White lives matter!” “You will not replace us!” and “Jews will not replace us!”

Several can also be seen giving the Nazi salute and using the Nazi slogan “blood and soil.”

Police intervened after some of the demonstrators were sprayed with tear gas.

On July 8, a few dozen Ku Klux Klan marchers gathered in Charlottesville to protest plans to remove the statue of Lee. But they were outnumbered by hundreds of jeering counter protestors.

This time the extreme right hopes to have a stronger showing thanks to the presence of various leaders of the “alt-right” movement that has been emboldened by Trump’s ascent to the White House.

AFP contributed to this report