HONG KONG • Two police officers were beaten bloody by pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong yesterday as violence erupted at a rally in the heart of the city calling for greater democratic freedoms.
Trouble flared when police ordered people at the authorised gathering to disperse after officers who were conducting stop-and-search operations on nearby streets had water bottles and paint thrown at them by angry crowds.
A group of plain-clothes officers who were speaking with organisers were then set upon by masked protesters, who beat them with umbrellas and sticks, an Agence France-Presse reporter on the scene said.
Two officers were seen with bloody head wounds as their colleagues shielded them from further attacks. "Such appalling acts are not to be condoned," the police said in a statement on Facebook.
Riot police swept into the area and fired tear gas to disperse the crowds. Brief clashes ensued, with the police making multiple arrests, including of a protester who had blood streaming from his head.
Hong Kong's protests have raged for seven months after being set off by a now-abandoned proposal to allow extraditions to China. They soon morphed into a wider movement calling for greater freedoms in what is the most concerted challenge to Beijing's rule since the former British colony's 1997 handover.
At yesterday's rally, thousands gathered in the heart of the Central commercial district, chanting slogans such as "Stand with Hong Kong, fight for freedom".
Some waved American, British and Hong Kong independence flags. There were many families and children present and the atmosphere was peaceful until police ordered the crowds to leave.
The frequency and ferocity of Hong Kong's protests have died down over the last month, but signs of the political unrest are everywhere, from graffiti daubed on walls and huge fences surrounding government buildings.
The city's police are now loathed by large swathes of the city, heckled by crowds, both at protest sites and in their local neighbourhoods. Critics accuse them of using excessive force, with no officer disciplined or punished in the last seven months.
Police say they have used force commensurate with the levels of violence they face from hardcore protesters who routinely throw bricks and petrol bombs.
They have blamed viral social media videos of officers making hard arrests and media coverage for their plummeting reputation among the city's inhabitants.
Among the key demands of the protest movement are an independent inquiry into police action, amnesty for the 7,000 people arrested and fully free elections.
Beijing as well as Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam have refused further concessions and defended police tactics.