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Clashes erupt as tens of thousands defy ban to demonstrate in Hong Kong

Vivek Prakash, AFP | Police fired tear gas and rubber bullets against protesters in Hong Kong on July 28.

Riot police fired tear gas and rubber bullets on Sunday to disperse tens of thousands of pro-democracy protesters who defied authorities to hold an unsanctioned march through Hong Kong, a day after riot police dispersed another illegal rally.

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The clashes mark a second consecutive day of violence in a city reeling from weeks of anti-government protests that show no sign of abating.

Sunday's unrest took place in a residential district close to the Liaison Office, which represents Beijing in the semi-autonomous region. Police and protesters were engaged in a tense stand-off for hours after tens of thousands of demonstrators held a series of unsanctioned marches through the city in defiance of a police ban on new gatherings.

Officials had initially granted permission for a rally in a park in a key commercial district known as Central, but the crowds quickly spilled into the surrounding streets. Some headed east to Causeway Bay, a busy shopping district, where they erected barricades and took over a main thoroughfare as shops and malls remained shuttered.

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

'Hong Kongers won't cower in fear'

“I feel so conflicted, seeing young people sacrifice their future for Hong Kong,” a 22-year-old student protester called Marcus told AFP, bursting into tears.

The latest march comes a day after a town near the border with mainland China descended into chaos as police battled protesters holding a rally against triad gangs suspected of being pro-government who beat up pro-democracy demonstrators last weekend.

An activist named Cheung said on Saturday she wanted to show "we are not afraid and that Hong Kongers won't cower in fear".

"The police and [the government] are together suppressing people's freedom to express their views," she added.

Riot police used tear gas throughout the afternoon and evening in Yuen Long after tense stand-offs with protesters, some of whom threw rocks and bottles at police. They also built barricades out of street furniture and surrounded a police van.

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

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

The largely leaderless movement used social messaging channels to organise the rally and it quickly filled up with calls for people to have a "shopping spree" in Yuen Long or play the popular mobile game Pokemon Go there.

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.

Yet the 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 government to deal with the situation.

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

However, the crisis is exposing fissures in Lam's administration, with police chiefs and rank-and-file officers enraged at an apology over last weekend's attacks by her chief secretary on Friday, apparently made without consultation.

Lam has not been seen much publically in recent weeks apart from obligatory visits to officials.

The official, Matthew Cheung, said the government would not shirk its responsibility "and the police's handling fell short of residents' expectations".

Pro-democracy lawmaker Claudia Mo said the city was now trapped in a “vicious cycle” where huge peaceful marches that have been ignored by the government end with violence between police and small groups of hardcore protesters.

“You see force being escalated on both sides but then this is a huge imbalance because the police are in possession of deadly weapons. This sums up Hong Kong today,” she told AFP.

Battle for Yuen Long

Tensions were significantly raised after last weekend’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.

The brazen assault resulted in at least 45 people being taken to hospital. 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.

Rare chaos

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 and a now-familiar pattern of running battles between police and protesters began.

Police on Sunday said 13 arrests were made in Yuen Long.

Among them was Max Chung, a young activist who had initially applied for permission to hold the Yuen Long protest. He was arrested for inciting an illegal assembly.

Hospital authorities said 24 people were injured, most of whom have been discharged but with two remaining in a serious condition.

Britain handed Hong Kong to China in 1997 amid guarantees that its core freedoms and autonomy, including the right to protest and an independent judiciary, would be protected under a "one country, two systems" formula.

Many fear those rights are under threat as Beijing's reach extends into the city.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)

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