HONG KONG, June 12: Hong Kong police fired rubber bullets and tear gas at demonstrators who threw plastic bottles on Wednesday as protests against an extradition bill that would allow people to be sent to mainland China for trial turned to violent chaos.
Tens of thousands of protesters had gathered peacefully outside the Chinese-ruled city’s legislature before tempers flared, some charging police with umbrellas.
Police warned them back, saying: “We will use force.”
Ambulances were heading toward the protest area as panic spread through the crowd, many people trying to flee the stinging tear gas. Some shops were putting up their shutters at the nearby IFC, one of Hong Kong’s tallest buildings.
Protesters “must stop the violence”, police chief Stephen Lo said, warning residents to stay away from a “riot situation”. He confirmed police were using plastic bullets.
The protesters, most of them young people dressed in black, had erected barricades as they prepared to hunker down for an extended occupation of the area, in scenes reminiscent of pro-democracy “Occupy” protests that gridlocked the former British colony in 2014.
Protesters rallied in and around Lung Wo Road, a main east-west artery near the offices of embattled Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam, as hundreds of armed riot police first warned them to halt.
“Didn’t we say at the end of the Umbrella movement we would be back?” pro-democracy lawmaker Claudia Mo said, referring to the name often used for the 2014 demonstrations, whose trademark was the yellow umbrella.
“Now we are back!” she said as supporters echoed her words.
Others once again called for Lam to step down.
Opposition to the bill on Sunday triggered Hong Kong’s biggest political demonstration since its handover from British to Chinese rule in 1997 under a “once country, two systems” deal guaranteeing it special autonomy, including freedom of assembly, free press and independent judiciary.
But many accuse China of extensive meddling since, including obstruction of democratic reforms, interference with local elections and of being behind the disappearance of five Hong Kong-based booksellers, starting in 2015, who specialized in works critical of Chinese leaders.
Lam has vowed to press ahead with the legislation despite deep concerns in the Asian financial hub, including among business leaders, that it could undermine those freedoms and investor confidence and erode the city’s competitive advantages.