Riot police and protesters in Hong Kong have clashed near the Chinese border, in the latest confrontation during a summer of pro-democracy protests in the financial hub.
Police on Saturday fired tear gas and rubber bullets at small groups of protesters who had built barricades in the outlying town of Tuen Mun, some of them lobbing bricks.
A Chinese flag was burned during the demonstration and multiple protesters were seen being arrested in the clashes, which were less sustained than the intense battles of previous weekends.
The city has been convulsed by months of huge, sometimes violent rallies calling for greater democratic freedoms and police accountability.
The movement is the biggest challenge to China‘s rule since Hong Kong was handed back by Britain in 1997 and shows no sign of ending, with city leaders and Beijing taking a hard line.
In a now-familiar pattern, the 16th straight weekend of protests began with a peaceful rally through Tuen Mun, a town in Hong Kong’s northwest, close to the border with mainland China.
Dressed in black and carrying umbrellas, a symbol of their movement, protesters chanted slogans such as, “reclaim Hong Kong!” and “revolution of our times!”
At one point, a handful of demonstrators pulled down China’s flag flying outside a local government office and burned it, according to AFP news agency.
Tensions soon spiked after police squads rushed into a park where crowds had gathered and made a series of arrests.
Hundreds of activists then built barricades and dismantled nearby fences to arm themselves with makeshift clubs. Objects were also thrown onto nearby train tracks.
Protesters, however, showed little appetite in holding ground, quickly retreating as soon as tear gas and rubber bullets were fired by police, AFP reported.
A government statement said some protesters “threw petrol bombs” but gave no details of possible injuries or damage. It told people in the area to stay indoors and keep their windows closed.
By Saturday evening, pockets of demonstrators and police were playing a familiar game of cat and mouse.
“This particular protest started very peacefully, but it unravelled in the evening. The riot police intervened when protesters blocked the roads with temporary blockades,” Al Jazeera’s Sarah Clarke said, reporting from Tuen Mun.
“This rally was approved by the authorities. The police only intervened after the protesters went beyond the deadline, which is 5pm local time [21:00 GMT]. Most of the protesters seem to be gone now [at 10:30GMT].” she added.
“The protesters are expected to head to another rally in Yuen Long, which neighbours Tuen Mun. However, with the police measures taken, they will have a hard time heading there.”
Hong Kong’s pro-democracy activists have been protesting against what they say is China’s growing encroachment on the city’s freedoms in a breach of the “one country, two systems” arrangement.
The protests began in opposition to proposed legislation that would have allowed the extradition of suspected criminals to China for trial. But they have since widened to include other demands such as an inquiry into alleged police brutality and the right to elect Hong Kong’s through direct voting.
The demonstrations have continued despite Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s announcement earlier this month that the controversial extradition bill will be withdrawn.
China has said it is committed to the “one country, two systems” framework that ensures freedoms not enjoyed on the mainland, including the right of assembly and an independent judiciary, and denies interfering in the territory’s affairs. It has accused foreign powers, particularly the United States and the United Kingdom, of fomenting the unrest.
In the weekend street battles, police have used tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannons with growing frequency against protesters, who have hurled rocks, bottles and petrol bombs.
The city’s forces reject such criticism, saying their officers have used proportionate force against hardcore protesters who are showing increasing levels of violence.
At a briefing with foreign journalists on Friday, a senior commanding officer said he was alarmed by the latest tactics from protesters.
“Our officers are worried that … violence has got to such a level that they might have to kill someone or be killed themselves,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“We have been so restrained but in the face of such violence, this pressure has become extremely dangerous.”