By Aaron Tam ,AFP
HONG KONG — Police repeatedly fired tear gas after tens of thousands of pro-democracy demonstrators brought parts of central Hong Kong to a standstill Sunday, a dramatic escalation of protests that have gripped the city for days. There were chaotic scenes, with protesters screaming “Shame!” at police as they tried to shield themselves from the clouds of gas, said AFP reporters in the semi-autonomous Chinese city.
Several scuffles broke out between police in helmets, gas masks and riot gear and demonstrators angered by the tear gas, which was last used in Hong Kong in 2005.
“We are unarmed, just standing here, there was no warning for the gas,” Harry Hung told AFP. Police fired several more volleys of tear gas on Connaught Road, a main thoroughfare blocked by protesters, before dark. As night fell thousands dispersed as around 40 police in full riot gear fired canisters of tear gas at the crowd as they walked toward the government headquarters. “This is unbelievable. This is a peaceful protest and the police are the ones using violence,” said demonstrator Jade Wong. “The level of police violence here is just like mainland China, it was never like this before.” Police had earlier used hand-held pepper spray on demonstrators who had spilt onto a major multi-lane highway after breaking through barricades set up to stop people joining the crowds camped outside Hong Kong’s government headquarters since Friday. Traffic had ground to a halt on Connaught Road, with police forced to retreat as the protesters rushed toward the crowds outside government headquarters on the other side. They cheered and embraced each other in the middle of the road, a major city artery usually filled with whizzing taxis and buses. China, which stations a military garrison in Hong Kong, said it was confident the city’s administration could handle the protest.
Beijing “firmly opposes all illegal activities that could undermine rule of law and jeopardize ‘social tranquility’ and it offers its strong backing” to the Hong Kong government, a spokesman for China’s Hong Kong and Macau affairs office was quoted by Xinhua News Agency as saying.