Hong Kong has been left reeling after its Lunar New Year celebration descended into chaotic scenes as protesters and police clashed over a street market selling fish balls and other holiday delicacies, leaving dozens injured.
The violence was the worst in Hong Kong since pro-democracy protests rocked the city in 2014, leaving a growing trust gap between the public and authorities.
Activists angered over authorities’ attempts to crack down on the food hawkers in a crowded Kowloon neighbourhood held running battles with police into the early hours of this morning.
Protesters pelted officers with bottles and rubbish, with some hurling bins, safety barriers and wood from shipping pallets and starting fires in the street.
Hong Kong’s chief executive Leung Chun-ying said a mob had attacked police officers and journalists and the perpetrators would be prosecuted.
“I believe the public can see for themselves from TV news reports the seriousness of the situation. The (Hong Kong) government strongly condemns such violent acts. The police will apprehend the mobs and bring them to justice,” he said.
Authorities said they were investigating whether the violence had been organised in advance.
At one point a protester tried to tackle a traffic police officer from behind before both sides joined the scuffle in the middle of a busy street, according to footage shown by local news channel Cable TV.
Moments later, another officer appeared to fire two warning shots into the air.
Police said the protesters had ignored their warnings to leave the street and shoved officers, who responded with batons and pepper spray.
Acting district commander Yau Siu-kei said 23 men and a woman aged 17 to 70 were arrested on suspicion of assaulting and obstructing officers, resisting arrest and public disorder.
More than 80 officers and four reporters were hurt, authorities said.
Mr Yau said two warning shots were fired.
The unrest started when authorities tried to prevent unlicensed street food sellers from operating in Mong Kok, a working-class district of the city.
The hawkers have become a local tradition during the Lunar New Year holiday, but this year authorities tried to remove them.
The hawkers were backed by activists who objected to the crackdown over concerns that Hong Kong’s local culture is disappearing as Beijing tightens its hold on the semi-autonomous city.
The latest scuffles underscore how tensions remain unresolved more than a year after the end of pro-democracy protests that gripped the city.
Mong Kok, a popular and densely-populated shopping and entertainment district, was one of the neighbourhoods where activists occupied streets for about 11 weeks in late 2014, capturing world headlines with their demands for greater electoral freedom.