Riot police chase Hong Kong Mother's Day protesters
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Riot police chase Hong Kong Mother's Day protesters

An undercover Hong Kong police officer arrests a pro-democracy demonstrator during a protest calling for the city's independence from China.
An undercover Hong Kong police officer arrests a pro-democracy demonstrator during a protest calling for the city's independence from China.

HONG KONG: Riot police chased protesters through Hong Kong's shopping malls and streets on Sunday as democracy activists launched Mother's Day flash mob rallies calling for independence and for the city's unpopular leader to resign.

The semi-autonomous Chinese city was convulsed by seven straight months of often violent pro-democracy protests last year, with millions hitting the streets.

Mass arrests and the coronavirus pandemic ushered in a period of enforced calm.

But with the finance hub successfully tackling its Covid-19 outbreak, small protests have bubbled up once more in the last fortnight.

Small flash mob demonstrations broke out in at least eight malls throughout Sunday afternoon, prompting riot police to rush in and disperse heckling crowds of activists and shoppers.

At least three arrests were made while groups of officers conducted multiple stop and searches.

Live broadcasts also showed police issuing $2,000 ($260) on-the-spot fines to those allegedly breaching emergency anti-virus measures banning more than eight people gathering in public.

Hong Kong celebrates the American Mother's Day, and protester chat groups had pushed the occasion to focus on chief executive Carrie Lam, a Beijing loyalist appointee.

At the start of last year's protests, Lam likened herself to an exasperated mother -- and protesting Hong Kongers to demanding children -- in comments that only poured oil on the fire of public anger at the time.

Authorities banned an application for a Mother's Day march, so small groups of masked protesters instead played cat and mouse with police in different shopping centres, a tactic used frequently last year.

"This is just a warm-up, our protest movement needs to start again," a university student who gave his name as "B" told AFP.

"It's a sign that the movement is coming back to life. We all need to wake up now."

In the evening, clashes spilled onto the streets, with police using batons and pepper spray in the busy commercial neighbourhood of Mong Kok and making more arrests, including of a pro-democracy lawmaker.

Lam, who has been staunchly backed by Beijing, has record-low approval ratings.

She has resisted calls for universal suffrage or an independent inquiry into the police's handling of the protests.

In the New Year, she vowed to heal the divisions coursing through Hong Kong, but her administration has offered little in the way of reconciliation or a political solution.

Arrests and prosecutions have continued apace, while Beijing's offices in the city sparked a constitutional row last month by announcing a greater say in how Hong Kong is run.

Plans to pass a law banning insulting China's national anthem sparked scuffles in the city's legislature on Friday.

Top Beijing officials have suggested opposition lawmakers who blocked the bill with filibustering could be prosecuted and have also called for a new anti-sedition law to be passed.

Hong Kong began to ease major social distancing measures on Friday with bars, gyms, beauty parlours and cinemas reopening after the financial hub largely halted local transmissions of the deadly coronavirus.

Most of Hong Kong's entertainment venues were shuttered in early April when the city suffered a second wave of infections -- primarily residents returning from Europe and North America as the pandemic spread rapidly there.

But health officials made impressive headway thanks to efficient testing, tracing and treatment programmes, with just over 1,000 infections and four deaths.

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