Hong Kong riot police fired warning shots during clashes that erupted in the Chinese-ruled city when authorities tried to remove illegal street stalls set up for Lunar New Year celebrations, the worst violence since pro-democracy protests in 2014.
Demonstrators threw bricks from the sidewalk to hurl at police, while others toppled street signs and set fire to rubbish bins in Mong Kok, a tough, working-class neighbourhood just across the harbour from the heart of the Asian financial centre.
“We have noticed a shift in some members of the public,” said Hong Kong Police Commissioner Lo Wai-chung.
“[They] have an inclination to use violence or radical acts in order to express their opinion.”
Nearly 90 police sustained injuries ranging from fractured bones to lacerations and bruises and 54 protesters were arrested, Lo said.
Hong Kong television showed police officers being beaten with poles and sticks as they lay on the ground.
Many protesters and police were also shown with blood streaming down their faces.
Police said two warning shots were fired into the air, with pepper spray and batons also used to disperse the crowd.
Television footage showed the shots were fired as protesters surrounded traffic police, pelting them with rubbish, bricks, and bottles, and wrestling one of them to the ground.
Lo said the life of the officer who fired the shots was being threatened. He also said there would be a full investigation into the incident.
The remains of burned bins and flower pots, chunks of brick and broken bottles lay scattered along the Nathan Rd shopping strip, which leads to the harbour at Tsim Sha Tsui.
A taxi with shattered windows was parked nearby.
The narrow streets in and around Mong Kok were the scene of some of the most violent clashes during protests in late 2014 to demand greater democracy for the former British colony that returned to Beijing rule in 1997.
The violence broke out after police moved in to clear illegal vendors who sell local delicacies, trinkets, and household goods from makeshift streetside stalls.
The hawkers, a common sight on Hong Kong’s bustling streets, quickly attracted a strong social media following under the hashtag #FishballRevolution.
Hong Kong chief executive Leung Chun-ying said the government strongly condemned the violence.
Secretary for security Lai Tung-kwok said police were investigating indications the clashes had been organised.
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