HONG KONG • A massive anti-government march in Hong Kong on New Year's Day spiralled into chaotic scenes as the police fired tear gas and water cannon at crowds, including families, before stopping the event.
The violence broke out during the largely peaceful march as masses of residents pressed their five demands, including an independent inquiry into police action, amnesty for those arrested and universal suffrage, amid a pro-democracy movement now into its seventh month.
Organisers said over a million people took part in the rally, as protesters looked to carry their movement's momentum into this year.
"Based on the counting until 6.15pm and a comparison with the march on June 9, we believe the total turnout for today's march has surpassed the 1.03 million on June 9," the Civil Human Rights Front said in a statement, referring to the massive rally last year that kicked off the city's pro-democracy campaign.
The authorities yesterday forced the organisers to end the rally earlier than planned after the clashes between hardcore protesters and the police.
In the Wan Chai bar district, some protesters spray-painted graffiti and smashed cash machines in an HSBC bank branch when riot police moved in, pepper-spraying crowds in a tense face-off.
Tear gas was then fired into the crowds, making some children cry.
The protesters, some with gas masks and clad in black, regrouped and formed their own lines as the police blocked roads to prevent large crowds from completing the march as night fell.
The atmosphere grew tense in several districts on Hong Kong Island, as hundreds of protesters dug in, forming roadblocks, setting fires and throwing a few petrol bombs.
Human chains formed along roads to help ferry supplies to people on the front lines, including umbrellas and bricks.
Protesters have directed their ire at global banking group HSBC, alleging a link between the arrest of four members of a group that raised funds to support the protesters and an earlier closure of an HSBC account linked to the group.
HSBC denies any connection.
A bronze lion at the bank's headquarters was daubed with red paint and scorched by fire. A bank spokesman said: "We strongly condemn the acts of vandalism and damage directed at our premises repeatedly in the last few days. We believe these are unjustified."
Some other businesses also fell victim to the violence yesterday.
The glass door of a China Life Insurance building was destroyed, and a Bank of China branch was also vandalised.
Some protesters yesterday also spray-painted words on the outer wall of the High Court to insult a judge.
Hong Kong's Department of Justice said personal attacks and insults against judges would severely undermine the authority of the courts and damage public confidence in the judicial system.
At least 400 people were reportedly arrested.
Earlier in the day, under grey clouds, residents young and old, many dressed in black and some masked, carried signs such as "Freedom is not free" before setting off.
"It's hard to utter 'Happy New Year' because Hong Kong people are not happy," said a man, who gave his name as Tung and was walking with his family members, including his two-year-old son.
"Unless the five demands are achieved, and the police are held accountable for their brutality, then we can't have a real happy new year." he added.
REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, XINHUA