Police fired tear gas early on Tuesday in Hong Kong to disperse hundreds of defiant protesters, some of whom had stormed and ransacked the Legislative Council hours earlier on the anniversary of the city’s 1997 return to Chinese rule.
Police arrived in a convoy of buses near midnight as about 1,000 protesters, furious at a proposed law that would allow extraditions to China, were gathered around the Legco building in a direct challenge to authorities in Beijing.
Earlier, protesters wearing hard hats, masks and black shirts had used a metal trolley, poles and scaffolding to charge again and again at the compound’s reinforced glass doors, which eventually gave. Scores of them poured into the building.
Police fired several rounds of tear gas as protesters held up umbrellas to protect themselves, trying to block their advance. Plumes of smoke billowed across major thoroughfares and between some of the world’s tallest skyscrapers.
The extraordinary violence marked an escalation in the weeks-long movement against the extradition law, which Hong Kong’s leader, Carrie Lam, had argued was necessary but suspended in mid-June after protest marches that drew hundreds of thousands of people onto the streets.
Lam called a news conference at 4 am (2000 GMT) to condemn what were some of the most violent protests to rock the city in decades. It was not clear if any arrests were made.
Umbrellas, metal barriers, hard hats, water bottles and other debris lay strewn across major roads near the Legco. Police and work crews removed metal barriers and other blockades from some thoroughfares in a bid to clear them ahead of businesses reopening on Tuesday.
Inside Legco, protesters smashed computers and spray-painted “anti-extradition” and slurs against the police and the government on chamber walls. Other graffiti called for Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive, to step down, while pictures of some lawmakers were defaced.
“HK Is Not China” was painted in black on a white pillar.
The government called for an immediate end to the violence, saying it had stopped work on amendments to the suspended extradition bill and that the legislation would automatically lapse in July next year.
“This kind of violent behavior affects the core value of the rule of law, and I felt angry and upset about this, and need to seriously condemn it,” Lam later told the media.
“I believe the citizens feel the same.”
On Monday, protesters, some with cling film wrapped around their arms to protect them from pepper spray and tear gas, again paralyzed parts of the Asian financial hub as they occupied roads near the government.
Riot police in helmets and carrying batons earlier fired pepper spray.
Banners hanging over flyovers at the protest site read: “Free Hong Kong.”
Lam has stopped short of protesters’ demands to scrap the extradition bill, although she has said the suspension would effectively kill the proposal because of the lawmaking schedule.
The Beijing-backed leader is now clinging to her job at a time of an unprecedented backlash against the government that poses the greatest popular challenge to Chinese leader Xi Jinping since he came to power in 2012.
News of the protests in Hong Kong has been heavily censored in the mainland.
Opponents of the extradition bill, which would allow people to be sent to mainland China for trial in courts controlled by the Communist Party, fear it is a threat to Hong Kong’s much-cherished rule of law.
The Legislative Council Secretariat released a statement cancelling business for Tuesday. The central government offices, which are adjacent to Legco, said they would close on Tuesday “owing to security consideration”, while all guided tours to the Legislative Council complex were suspended until further notice.
The European Union on Monday called for restraint and dialogue to find a way forward.
A US State Department spokeswoman urged all sides to refrain from violence.
“Hong Kong’s success is predicated on its rule of law and respect for fundamental freedoms, including freedoms of expression and peaceful assembly,” she said.
While thousands of demonstrators laid siege to the legislature, tens of thousands marched through the center of town in an annual handover anniversary rally.
Many clapped as protesters held up a poster of Lam inside a bamboo cage. Organizers said 550,000 turned out. Police said there were 190,000 at their peak.
More than a million people have taken to the streets at times over the past three weeks to vent their anger.
A tired-looking Lam appeared in public for the first time in nearly two weeks, before the storming of the legislature, flanked by her husband and former Hong Kong leader Tung Chee-hwa.
“The incident that happened in recent months has led to controversies and disputes between the public and the government,” she said. “This has made me fully realize that I, as a politician, have to remind myself all the time of the need to grasp public sentiment accurately.”
Pro-democracy lawmakers and the protest march organizers said Lam had ignored the demands of the people and pushed youngsters toward desperation, despite pledging to listen to people’s demands. Reuters
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