HONG KONG • Scores of police officers were hurt yesterday when a riot erupted in Hong Kong's Mongkok district after the authorities tried to remove illegal street stalls set up for Chinese New Year celebrations.
It was the worst street violence the city had seen since pro-democracy protests in 2014.
Police said nearly 90 of their number were injured, many by broken glass or projectiles.
Dozens of protesters were also hurt in the clash that began late on Monday night and lasted till yesterday morning.
While the streets were calm by the afternoon, Police Commissioner Stephen Lo Wai Chung told reporters that officers would remain vigilant.
Demonstrators charged police lines with home-made shields and set rubbish on fire in the middle of the road.
One officer was seen pointing his gun at crowds who hurled stones, bottles and pieces of wooden pallets at police.
Officers fired at least two warning shots in the air, multiple news outlets reported, a very rare occurrence in the semi-autonomous southern Chinese city. They also used pepper spray in chaotic scenes broadcast on local television.
As criticism grew of police tactics, Commissioner Lo defended the officer who fired his weapon, saying rioters had been continuously attacking his injured colleague.
Police said that 54 protesters aged between 15 and 70 were arrested for assaulting the police, resisting arrest and disorderly conduct in a public place, among other offences.
"We will consider charging the arrested persons with participating in a riot," Commissioner Lo said.
This offence carries a sentence of up to 10 years in prison.
Secretary for Security Lai Tung Kwok said police were investigating "indications" that the clashes had been organised.
Hong Kong leader Leung Chun Ying said that the government "strongly condemns such violent acts".
The hawkers, a common sight on Hong Kong's bustling streets, attracted a strong social media following under the hashtag, #FishballRevolution.
Demonstrators, including members of radical "localist" groups - which stress Hong Kong's separate identity from the mainland and demand greater autonomy - tried to defend the hawkers, who they say add to the festive atmosphere.
Reports said that one of those arrested was Mr Edward Leung, a "localist" candidate for an upcoming by-election on Feb 28.
At least four journalists were injured, one of them hit on the head by a brick thrown by rioters, the Hong Kong Journalists Association said.
Mongkok, on the city's Kowloon peninsula, was the scene of some of the worst violence during the 79-day "Occupy" pro-democracy street protests in late 2014.
Police presence was increased for last night's Chinese New Year fireworks display as thousands gathered at the city's Victoria Harbour.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS, BLOOMBERG