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Hong Kong readies for New Year democracy rally

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Hong Kong (AFP)

Hong Kong was readying for a massive pro-democracy rally Wednesday after seeing in the New Year with an evening of peaceful protests that morphed into tear gas-choked clashes between hardcore demonstrators and police.

The city has been battered by more than six months of unrest with millions marching, as well as confrontations in which police have fired tear gas and rubber bullets, while protesters have responded with petrol bombs.

Thousands gathered before midnight across the financial hub, including along Victoria Harbour and at nightlife hotspot Lan Kwai Fong.

Protesters at the harbourfront counted down chanting "Ten! Nine! Liberate Hong Kong, revolution now!" as they lit up their phones.

Smaller crowds in the Mong Kok district set fire to barricades, before riot police unleashed 2020's first volleys of tear gas in response.

Police had also used water cannon to disperse protesters in the same area, and in nearby Prince Edward officers arrested several protesters staging a candlelight vigil.

Earlier in the evening, thousands of people linked arms in human chains that stretched for miles along busy shopping streets and through local neighbourhoods.

They chanted slogans, sang "Glory to Hong Kong" -- a protest anthem -- and held up posters calling for people to fight for democracy in 2020.

"Thanks to 2019, which tore off the ugly masks of the police and the government and let the people see the truth," said protester Kris, a medic who joined protest.

"The movement is kind of like at its bottleneck now. Hopefully a huge turnout at tomorrow's march could bring back people's passion," he added.

- Independent inquiry -

In late November, the city's pro-democracy camp scored a landslide victory in a municipal-level vote seen as a referendum on the Beijing-backed government's handling of political unrest.

The protest movement has since become quieter but sporadic clashes have persisted.

But protesters have vowed to continue their effort to push for greater democratic freedoms and police accountability.

The Civil Human Rights Front, the chief organiser of marches, is hoping for a huge turnout at Wednesday's rally to urge the government to respond to the demands of the pro-democracy movement -- which include an independent inquiry into the police, amnesty for arrestees and fully free elections.

Police have arrested nearly 6,500 people since June -- nearly a third of them aged under 20.

"People will be more determined in the new year. People know that the future of Hong Kong depends on whether we can achieve the five demands."

The demonstrations were sparked by a now-abandoned bill to allow extraditions to the authoritarian mainland, but have since evolved into a popular revolt against Beijing's control -- the biggest crisis since the former British colony's return to Chinese rule in 1997.

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