Hong Kong police have used water cannon for the first time and at least one officer fired his sidearm during pitched battles with protesters, one of the most violent nights in three months of pro-democracy rallies that have rocked the city.
Thousands of protesters on Sunday poured onto the streets of the Tsuen Wan neighbourhood, where they clashed with police, who fired tear gas and eventually turned to two vehicles armed with water cannon to disperse the demonstrators, who gathered despite steady rains.
At least one petrol bomb was thrown by protesters, some of whom took off down narrow side streets where the water cannon, which had not been used in years of anti-government protests, could not follow.
In one instance, several police officers drew their sidearms, an AFP news agency reporter at the scene said.
“According to my understanding, just now a gunshot was fired by a colleague,” Superintendent Leung Kwok Win told the press on Sunday.
“My initial understanding was that it was a uniformed policeman who fired his gun.”
It was unclear where the shot was aimed, but public broadcaster RTHK said one of its reporters saw a uniformed officer fire a shot into the sky.
Some dug up bricks from the pavement and wheeled them away to use as ammunition, others sprayed detergent on the road to make it slippery for the lines of police.
The Chinese-ruled city’s MTR rail operator suspended some services to try to prevent people from gathering.
The demonstration continued despite the arrest of 29 people after overnight clashes that saw authorities use tear gas to disperse the crowd.
The water cannon as it was deployed to clear protesters and barricades on Sunday evening.
— Hong Kong Free Press HKFP (@hkfp) August 25, 2019
Police accused the protesters of throwing bricks, forcing them to use tear gas and the water cannon.
According to local media, the police’s Special Tactical Squad, also known as the Raptors, was deployed, charging at demonstrators and arresting several of them.
End to week of relative calm
Reporting from Hong Kong, Al Jazeera’s Wayne Hay said that a period of relative calm that lasted just over a week seemed to have come to an end.
“What we have seen is peaceful marches taking place, with leaders seeking and getting approval to hold those marches. But small breakaway groups started blocking roads and barricades,” Hay said.
“Police gave a warning they would come in and reclaim the streets, and that’s exactly what they did,” he added.
“We had an hour of a lot of tear gas being fired by police and bricks being thrown in response.”
Protestors in Hong Kong are cutting down facial recognition towers. pic.twitter.com/bTvb8uis7V
— Jordan Sather (@Jordan_Sather_) August 24, 2019
Police said in a statement on Sunday they strongly condemned protesters “breaching public peace” and that 19 men and 10 women were arrested.
Those arrested also included the organiser of Saturday’s march, Ventus Lau, public broadcaster RTHK reported.
It was the first use of tear gas in more than a week after a series of mostly-peaceful demonstrations in the former British colony.
More than 700 people have been arrested since the demonstrations began over two months ago after Hong Kong announced a bill that would make it easier for authorities to extradite people from the former British colony to mainland China.
That bill has since been shelved, but protesters have continued their calls for more democracy in the special administrative region, demonstrating against the increased influence of China’s mainland on daily life in the Asian financial hub.
They say they are fighting the erosion of the “one country, two systems” arrangement that enshrines a high degree of autonomy for Hong Kong since the handover to China.
The city’s leader, Carrie Lam, has repeatedly called for an end to the protests.
Earlier this week, she started what she called brainstorming conversations to come up with solutions that would satisfy the critics.
“She invited 19 high-ranking people to discuss the issues, but there was no representative from the protesters so there is only a small chance of these protests ending,” Hay said.
“Reports from that meeting suggest that more than half of those people present at those discussions want Carrie Lam to agree to some of the demands of the protesters, including an independent inquiry into police conduct,” he added.
“She said, according to those reports, that the time is not right for an investigation. She wants peace in the streets first before she will start any kind of inquiry.”
On Saturday, China released Simon Cheng, a British consulate worker who was held in detention for 15 days for allegedly breaching public security management regulations.
Cheng, who had travelled to the neighbouring city of Shenzhen on a business trip, “confessed to his illegal acts”, a statement by Chinese authorities said.
Following Cheng’s arrest, the Canadian consulate in Hong Kong barred local staff from leaving the city on official business.