Embattled Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam broke her silence yesterday to condemn "rioters" and praise police after violent clashes on Sunday night left two police officers in a critical state and four people in serious condition.
Mrs Lam said the police had acted professionally and practised restraint in dealing with the group of protesters who hung around New Town Plaza shopping mall in Sha Tin, hours after a rally had ended.
Speaking to the media at a Tai Po hospital, where six officers are still being treated, she said the police's duty is to uphold the law, and those who break the law have to be taken to task. "Hong Kong society will not condone such violence and unlawful acts," she added.
Secretary for Security John Lee, who also visited the hospital, told reporters that the recent protests have escalated and become more serious and organised.
"Violent acts must not be rationalised or glamorised," he warned.
The stern warning followed police chief Stephen Lo's condemnation of the violent clashes between his officers and protesters on Sunday night that left 28 injured. Of these, 11 were officers, including two who lost fingers.
Police arrested at least 40 people after the violence at New Town Plaza mall in the New Territories.
Speaking early yesterday morning, Mr Lo vowed to follow up investigations "to the very end" to bring those behind it to justice. He said an officer had part of a finger bitten off by a protester, while others were hit by objects hurled at them.
Violent acts must not be rationalised or glamorised.
SECRETARY FOR SECURITY JOHN LEE
"When we mount an operation, they say we abuse our power to make arrests. When we stand back, they say we are setting up a trap," he said.
Mr Lam Chi-wai, chairman of the Junior Police Officers' Association, told broadcaster TVB yesterday that protesters had made the assault of police officers a common occurrence and were adamant about not following the rule of law, which has caused great frustration among officers.
"The frustrations come from the past month of trying to keep society stable, to uphold the rule of law and protect Hong Kongers. Why do people treat the police this way?"
Mr Lam added that it was evident from yesterday's clashes that the police deployed there did not have adequate protection gear and questioned the sense in having them engage protesters at close quarters.
Violence flared on Sunday night as officers moved to clear the streets and later, the shopping mall.
Organisers said about 115,000 people had joined Sunday's rally in Sha Tin, which is in the New Territories, while police put the number at 28,000.
The rally was largely peaceful but scuffles broke out in the streets, with the police resorting to pepper spray and batons as protesters threw umbrellas and bottles at them.
Some protesters and residents parked upstairs in Sha Tin Centre and Lucky Plaza threw rubbish at the officers on the ground floor.
Tensions flared at night when officers in riot gear entered New Town Plaza mall and tried to disperse the crowd that was still milling about.
Opposition lawmakers and district councillors criticised the police for their strategy, asking why they had initially blocked protesters from heading to the MTR station that is linked to the mall.
They said leaving a route for the protesters to exit would have served the purpose of dispersing the crowd. Instead, the riot police moved in on protesters who were trying to make their way to the station, which triggered the chaos.
Mr Lo responded: "When there were people breaking the law, should the police really just allow them to do so?"
Separately, Mrs Lam denied she had offered to resign several times in recent weeks as reported by the Financial Times. FT's report said she had been told by Beijing to stay and clean up the mess over the extradition Bill.
Pressure has been mounting on Mrs Lam to quit over her role in trying to push through the controversial extradition Bill, which would have allowed suspects to be transferred to other jurisdictions for trial, including the mainland, where Hong Kongers fear they would not receive a fair trial.
China's Foreign Ministry yesterday dismissed the FT report, saying that the central government stands firmly behind Mrs Lam's administration.