Crowds defy HK police after activists attacked

Crowds defy HK police after activists attacked

Riot police officers block the street during an anti-government protest in Hong Kong, China, October 20, 2019. REUTERS/Ammar Awad

Large crowds of Hong Kongers defied a police ban and held an illegal march on Sunday, their numbers have swollen by anger over the recent stabbing and beating of two pro-democracy protesters.

Authorities had forbidden the march in Tsim Sha Tsui, a densely packed shopping district filled with luxury boutiques and hotels, citing public safety and previous violence from hardcore protesters.

But tens of thousands joined the unsanctioned rally regardless as the movement tries to keep up pressure on the city's pro-Beijing leaders after nearly five months of protests and political unrest.

Tensions were running high after the leader of the group organising the weekend rally, Jimmy Sham, was hospitalised by men wielding hammers earlier in the week.

Then on Saturday night, a man handing out pro-democracy flyers was stabbed in the neck and stomach.

A sea of protesters shuffled through the streets under a canopy of umbrellas to protect from the bright sunshine on Sunday.

Many said they wanted to show they were unbowed by the attacks and authorities increasingly banning marches.

"The more they suppress, the more we resist," a 69-year-old protester, who gave her surname Yeung, told AFP. "Can police arrest us all, tens of thousands of people?"

Philip Tsoi, a self-described frontline protester, said they needed to keep getting numbers out even though many more hardcore activists like him had been "arrested or wounded" in recent weeks.

"What I want is a truly democratic government whose leader is elected by Hong Kong people instead of selected by a Communist regime," he told AFP.

In a now-familiar pattern, the large march remained peaceful, but smaller groups of black-clad protesters vandalised some subway station entrances and mainland Chinese banks along the route.

Police fired tear gas volleys at crowds of hardcore activists outside Tsim Sha Tsui police station.

Vigilante violence has mounted on both sides of the ideological divide.

In recent weeks pro-democracy supporters have badly beaten people who vocally disagree with them -- although those fights tend to be spontaneous outbursts of mob anger during protests.

In contrast, pro-democracy figures have been attacked in a noticeably more targeted way, with at least eight prominent government critics, including politicians, beaten by unknown assailants since mid-August.

Protesters have labelled the attacks "white terror" and accused the city's shadowy organised crime groups of forming an alliance with Beijing supporters.

Beijing has denounced the protests as a foreign-backed plot and condemned attacks on those voicing support for China.

But it has remained largely silent on the attacks carried out against pro-democracy figures.

Hong Kong has been battered by 20 weeks of pro-democracy protests which have seen millions peacefully take to the streets as well as unrest.

With no political solution in sight, the clashes have intensified each month.

Hardliners have embraced widespread vandalism and throwing petrol bombs, while riot police have responded with increasing volleys of tear gas, rubber bullets and, more recently, live rounds.

The rallies were triggered by a now-abandoned plan to allow extraditions to the authoritarian mainland. But they morphed into wider calls for democracy and police accountability after Beijing and local leaders took a hard line.

Protesters are demanding an independent inquiry into the police, an amnesty for those arrested and fully free elections, all of which have been rejected by Beijing and Hong Kong's unelected leader Carrie Lam.

Earlier this month city leader Lam invoked a colonial-era emergency law to ban face masks.

The decision set off a new wave of protests and vandalism that shut down much of the city's transport network.

In the last fortnight, the clashes have become less intense with the city's subway closing each night at 10:00 pm.

But protests have continued with many defying the mask ban during "flashmob" rallies.

On Friday night thousands gathered outside subway stations in an array of face masks while on Saturday night hundreds of mostly masked protesters held a prayer vigil in the commercial district.

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