HONG KONG • Under fire in recent days over an allegedly heavy-handed approach towards protesters, the Hong Kong police's response to an angry mob trying to break into the Legislative Council (LegCo) building yesterday evening seemed to emphasise restraint until clearing operations were launched just past midnight.
In the early hours of the confrontation, police in riot gear clustered inside, holding a sign warning demonstrators to stop charging or they would use force, with broadcaster Now TV reporting that some police had donned gas masks. At one point, pepper spray was used on the protesters.
Earlier, riot police had used pepper spray and batons to push back protesters who tried to disrupt the annual flag-raising ceremony at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre in Wanchai.
The government said around midday that demonstrators had attacked police lines and thrown an unidentified liquid at officers. Some officers reported difficulties breathing and irritated skin, and 13 were taken to hospital, the government said in a statement.
Police also said some protesters had thrown lime powder at the police, injuring officers.
"Police strongly condemn such illegal acts and will stringently follow up," it said.
The police and government said they condemned the violence at the legislature and added that officers were exercising restraint.
Even after Hong Kong's LegCo issued a red security alert, Now TV reported, protesters wearing hard hats crowded outside, some pulling metal slats off the building's gate.
The council's red alert means everyone should leave the area immediately. A spokesman for the Hong Kong government condemned those trying to storm the building.
Ms Kate Leung, 41, a high school English teacher who was peacefully marching with crowds in the adjacent Wanchai area, said: "Yes, there is violence. But we are forced to do so. Are we just going to lie down and let them beat us up?"
A few kilometres away, Mr Felix Tam, 40, who works in sales, joined crowds numbering in the tens of thousands in marching from Victoria Park with his wife and his six-year-old son.
He said clashes at the legislature and earlier in the day had not deterred him from marching.
Ms Pauline Wong, 49, who works at a non-governmental organisation, marched with her husband.
Like thousands of others, they were undeterred by events at the legislature. "It is obvious there are two streams of protesters," she said. "One is trying to put things in action, but we will remain peaceful."
The Hong Kong police had earlier warned of a "serious" safety threat in Admiralty and Wanchai, and advised members of the public to exercise caution in deciding whether to join the march.
Tensions spiralled on June 12 when police fired rubber bullets and tear gas at anti-extradition Bill protesters near the heart of the city, sending plumes of smoke billowing among some of the world's tallest skyscrapers. The uproar has reignited a protest movement that lost steam after the failed 2014 demonstrations that led to the arrests of hundreds.
Mr Fernando Cheung, vice-chairman of the Labour Party and a member of the LegCo, said the breaking and entering would play into the government's past categorisation of the protesters as rioters.
"You see the anger, the desperation these young people are experiencing. That is why they want to take anything they think is radical enough, escalating enough to make the government respond," he told journalists in the chamber. "This is really unfortunate... This is exactly what the government wants."