Violence returns as protesters taunt HK police

Violence returns as protesters taunt HK police

'Continuing to fight is not the way out,' says embattled Lam as she seeks resolution

A demonstrator with a baseball bat takes aim at a police officer during a protest in Hong Kong on Saturday. (AP Photo)
A demonstrator with a baseball bat takes aim at a police officer during a protest in Hong Kong on Saturday. (AP Photo)

Hong Kong protests turn violent again with demonstrators taunting police, who respond with tear gas, while embattled Carrie Lam seeks advice on finding solutions.

Hundreds of black-clad protesters armed with bamboo poles and baseball bats fought with police officers wielding batons on a main road following a march against “smart lampposts” that was sparked by surveillance fears.

The chaotic scenes unfolded outside a police station and a nearby shopping mall as officers in riot gear faced off with protesters who set up makeshift street barricades.

The violence interrupted nearly two weeks of calm in Hong Kong, which has been gripped by a turbulent pro-democracy movement since June.

Police fired tear gas to disperse the crowd after repeated warnings “went futile”, the government said in a statement. By early evening, most of the protesters had dispersed.

Earlier in the day, some protesters used an electric saw to slice through the bottom of a smart lamppost, while others pulled ropes tied around it to send it toppling and cheered as it crashed to the ground.

The protest march started peacefully as supporters took to the streets to demand the removal of the lampposts over worries that they could contain high-tech cameras and facial recognition software used for surveillance by Chinese authorities.

The government in Hong Kong said smart lampposts only collect data on traffic, weather and air quality.

The protesters chanted slogans calling for the government to answer the movement’s demands. The protests began in June with calls to drop a now-suspended extradition bill that would have allowed Hong Kong residents to be sent to China to stand trial, then widened to include free elections for the city’s top leader and an independent inquiry into alleged police brutality.

“Hong Kong people’s private information is already being extradited to China. We have to be very concerned,” organiser Ventus Lau said ahead of the procession.

The semiautonomous Chinese territory has said it plans to install about 400 of the smart lampposts in four urban districts, starting with 50 this summer in the Kwun Tong and Kowloon Bay districts that were the scene of Saturday’s protest march.

The subway operator MTR Corp shut down stations and suspended train service near the protest route, after attacks by Chinese state media accusing it of helping protesters flee in previous protests.

Thousands of demonstrators, many wearing hard hats and gas masks, marched through the industrial Kwun Tong area earlier in the afternoon, where they were blocked by dozens of officers with shields and batons outside a police station.

Frontline protesters pulled together a barricade of traffic barriers and bamboo construction poles, spray-painting walls with insults directed at the police.

As the afternoon wore on some fired stones from slingshots, prompting a charge from police wielding batons and pepper spray. Tears gas swept across the road as protesters retreated, leaving a trail of broken bottles and at least one small fire in their wake.

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam held a meeting on Saturday with former officials and other prominent people to find a way out of the impasse that has rocked the former British colony.

Demonstrators are looking to maintain the momentum of their movement after staging large but peaceful protests last weekend, temporarily breaking the recent pattern of tear gas and police clashes.

On Friday night, about 200,000 people formed a human chain across the city, while a plan to disrupt airport transport services on Saturday morning fizzled out. Earlier this month, thousands of demonstrators had occupied the airport halls, leading to hundreds of flight cancellations.

Historic mass marches opposing legislation that would have eased extradition to China began peacefully in June, and have since widened into a broader movement against Beijing’s increasing grip on the territory.

At Government House on Saturday afternoon, about 30 people attended the meeting organised by Lam. They included former transport chief Anthony Cheung and Cardinal John Tong, the former Bishop of Hong Kong, RTHK reported. Lam said the meeting was not a “dialogue platform” but a gathering to share ideas on how to build a dialogue platform.

“I do not expect dialogue to easily resolve the deadlock, stop demonstrations, or to provide solutions to problems,” she said in a Facebook post. “But continuing to fight is not the way out.”

More protest marches are scheduled for Sunday in the Tsuen Wan and Kwai Chung areas, starting at mid-afternoon. Relatives of police also plan a march to Lam’s official residence in support of local law enforcement.

In another development, Cathay Pacific Airways said it would show zero tolerance to any employees who support or take part in illegal protests ahead of “planned activities” by trade union members around its Cathay City operational hub in Hong Kong on Monday.

“Any activities that impact our ability to operate safely not only significantly disrupt the travelling public, but also jeopardise the safety of our customers and our employees,” the airline said in a statement on Saturday.

Hong Kong’s flag carrier has come under pressure from mainland authorities after its employees joined earlier protests.

When authorities asked CEO Rupert Hogg on Aug 16 to submit names of Cathay employees who were involved, he submitted just one name: his own. He then submitted his resignation after the airline was rebuked by Beijing over the involvement of its employees in anti-Beijing activity.

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