Hong Kong braces for new rally after fresh riot police clashes

Hong Kong (AFP) –


Defiant pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong were readying for another big rally later Sunday, a day after police fired rubber bullets and tear gas in the latest violent confrontation that has plunged the financial hub deeper into crisis.

A town near the border with China descended into chaos on Saturday as police battled protesters holding a banned rally against suspected pro-government triad gangs who beat up democracy demonstrators there last weekend.

Riot police usd tear gas throughout the afternoon and evening in Yuen Long after tense standoffs with protesters, some of whom were throwing projectiles and had surrounded a police van.

Rubber bullets were fired later in the clashes which ended when riot police baton charged the last remaining demonstrators inside the town's metro station, leaving pools of blood in the same concourse where the suspected triads had attacked the previous weekend.

Police said 11 arrests were made. Hospital authorities said 24 people were injured, most of whom have been discharged but two remained in serious condition.

Saturday's violence compounds the political crisis engulfing the city's pro-Beijing leadership who are seemingly unable, or unwilling, to end the chaos.

A rally is planned on the main island on Sunday afternoon.

Police have given permission for a static protest in a park but have banned a proposed march through the city, ratcheting up the likelihood of renewed clashes.

- Weeks of chaos -

Semi-autonomous Hong Kong has been plunged into its worst crisis in recent history after millions of demonstrators took to the streets and sporadic violent confrontations erupted between police and pockets of hardcore protesters.

The demonstrations over the last seven weeks were triggered by a controversial bill which would have allowed extraditions to mainland China, but have evolved into a call for wider democratic reforms and a halt to sliding freedoms.

Yet the weeks of unprecedented protests with huge turnouts -- as well as frequent clashes and the sacking of parliament -- have had little luck persuading Beijing or Hong Kong's leaders.

Beijing has issued increasingly shrill condemnations in the last two weeks, but has left it to the city's semi-autonomous government to deal with the situation.

City leader Carrie Lam has shown no sign of backing down beyond agreeing to suspend the extradition bill.

Her administration has faced down weeks of public anger.

But the tensions ratcheted up after last week's attack by a pro-government mob in Yuen Long.

The town is in Hong Kong's rural New Territories where many of the surrounding villages are known for triad connections and their staunch support for the pro-Beijing establishment.

- Battle for Yuen Long -

That brazen assault hospitalised at least 45 people. Police were heavily criticised for being too slow to respond to the violence, fuelling accusations of collusion or turning a blind eye to the pro-government mob -- allegations the force has denied.

In a rare move, police banned Saturday's rally saying they feared reprisal attacks against villagers from protesters, a decision that only heightened anger towards a force already perceived to be protecting pro-government aggressors.

Tens of thousands of people defied the ban on Saturday and began a peaceful rally.

But small groups of more hardcore protesters, many in helmets and carrying shields, confronted police outside the villages and accused them of protecting triads.

Tensions quickly rose with projectiles hurled. Soon tear gas rounds were arcing through the air and a now-familiar pattern of running battles between police and protesters began.

On one road, a parked Lexus that was found to have wooden sticks and clubs similar to those used in Sunday's attacks inside it -- as well as a Samurai-style sword -- had been trashed.

By late evening only some 200 protesters remained around the main station who were then charged by riot police.