HONG KONG (REUTERS) - Fifty-four people were arrested following a bloody clash on Tuesday (Feb 9) in which riot police fired warning shots to disperse an angry crowd when authorities tried to move illegal street vendors from a working-class Hong Kong district.
Protesters prised bricks from the sidewalk to hurl at police, while others toppled street signs and set fire to rubbish bins in Mong Kok, a gritty neighbourhood just across the harbour from the heart of the Asian financial centre.
“We have noticed a shift in some members of the public,”said Hong Kong Police Commissioner Lo Wai Chung. “(They) have an inclination to use violence or radical acts in order to express their opinion.”
Nearly 90 police sustained injuries ranging from fractured bones to lacerations and bruises and 54 protesters were arrested, he said.
Hong Kong television showed police officers being beaten with poles and sticks as they lay on the ground. Many protesters and police were also shown with blood streaming down their faces.
Police said two warning shots were fired into the air, with pepper spray and batons also used to disperse the crowd.
Television footage showed the shots were fired as protesters surrounded traffic police, pelting them with rubbish, bricks and bottles and wrestling one of them to the ground.
Commissioner Lo said the life of the officer who fired the shots was being threatened. He also said there would be a full investigation into the incident.
The remains of burned bins and flower pots, chunks of brick and broken bottles lay scattered along the world-famous Nathan Road shopping strip on Tuesday morning. A taxi with shattered windows also lay parked nearby.
The clashes broke out after police moved in to clear “hawkers”, or illegal vendors who sell local delicacies, trinkets and household goods from makeshift street side stalls.
The hawkers, a common sight on Hong Kong’s bustling streets, quickly attracted a strong social media following under the hashtag #FishballRevolution.
Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun Ying told reporters at a hastily called news conference that the city’s government strongly condemned the violence.
Secretary for Security Lai Tung Kwok said police were investigating “indications” that the clashes had been organised. When asked about the warning shots, he said police had taken all necessary actions.
The protesters had dispersed by 8.00 am Tuesday. Police said they did not expect another riot on Tuesday night, when new year fireworks are planned over the harbour, but they were boosting manpower nonetheless.
“NOT THE FIRST TIME”
Mr Paul Lee, a 65-year-old security guard, said: “This is not the first time there has been violence in Mong Kok.” “I am deeply disappointed in the government,” he said.
The underground train station for Mong Kok, a bustling shopping district packed with street markets, shops and high-rise residential buildings, was closed temporarily.
The narrow streets in and around Mong Kok were the scene of some of the most violent clashes during protests in late 2014 to demand greater democracy in the former British colony that returned to Beijing rule in 1997.
Tuesday’s clashes, however, appeared more violent. Hong Kong Indigenous, a “localist” group that is fielding a candidate in a Legislative Council by-election in a few weeks, was involved in the protest, the South China Morning Post newspaper reported.
The group said on its official Facebook page that its candidate, Edward Leung Tin-kei, had been arrested. They could not be reached immediately by telephone to confirm his arrest.
Many so-called localists remain deeply embittered by the lack of any concessions from Beijing or Hong Kong authorities during the pro-democracy protests. Television footage showed protesters on Tuesday shouting: “Establish a Hong Kong country!” during running battles with the police.