Hong Kong police fired volleys of tear gas to break up anti-government protests in a gritty industrial suburb on Saturday after activists threw petrol bombs and bricks, as China freed a British consulate worker whose detention had fueled tensions.
Four MTR subway stations were closed around Kwun Tong, a densely populated area of the Chinese-ruled city on the east of the Kowloon peninsula, but thousands packed the streets anyway, most carrying umbrellas against the sun.
Police used tear gas after some protesters threw Molotov cocktails and bricks and others tore up “smart” lamp posts equipped with surveillance cameras. Others had set up roadblocks with bamboo scaffolding.
It was the first use of tear gas in 10 days after a series of mostly peaceful demonstrations in the former British colony.
There were no immediate reports of injuries.
“Give me democracy or give me death,” was spray-painted on a wall, an illustration how the demands of the protesters have expanded beyond the withdrawal of a bill that would have allowed extraditions to China.
The government said in a statement the protesters “posed a serious threat to the safety of everyone” at the scene.
“After repeated warnings to the protesters, … police officers deployed tear gas and minimum force to disperse protesters,” it said.
There were sporadic, smaller protests elsewhere in the territory which continued after nightfall. Police fired tear gas in a running battle with protesters blocking a highway in the Wong Tai Sin district, to the northwest of Kwun Tong.
The airport and the roads and railways leading to it operated normally despite plans by protesters to implement a “stress test” of transport links after weeks of unrest.
The airport was forced to close last week after protesters thronged the main terminal for several days, grounding around 1,000 flights and occasionally clashing with police.
The wider calls for democracy have plunged the city into an unprecedented crisis posing a direct challenge for Communist Party leaders in Beijing.
Demonstrators say they are fighting the erosion of the “one country, two systems” arrangement that enshrines a high degree of autonomy for Hong Kong since it was handed back from British to Chinese rule in 1997.
Hundreds took part in an “anti-fake news” protest, with people waving the Hong Kong and China flags and targeting government-funded broadcaster RTHK. A station spokeswoman, Amen Ng, rejected claims that RTHK was engaged in fake news.
British consulate staffer Simon Cheng was detained for 15 days for violating public security management regulations, police in Shenzhen, across the border from Hong Kong, said on their social media account.
Police said Cheng was released as scheduled on Saturday and that his legal rights and interests had been observed. They also said Cheng had confessed to accusations against him, a commonly used comment by Chinese police, even though Cheng was not given a chance to defend himself in court.
Cheng had now returned to Hong Kong, his family said on his social media page.
No details were given of his detention, with the post asking the “media and friends to give them some time and space, and we will explain more later.”
Some protesters in recent days had demanded Cheng be released. Britain said it welcomed the news.