Authorities in Hong Kong have arrested 10 people in connection with a suspected bomb plot as police officers took up residence in the city's legislature ahead of a Beijing-backed political reform package for the former British colony.
Police arrested six men and four women late on Monday on suspicion of "conspiracy to manufacture explosives," the territory's police department said in a statement on its website on Tuesday.
It said chemical ingredients for manufacturing triacetone triperoxide (TATP) were seized at the home of one of the group, while the chemical formula for manufacturing smoke grenades was found in the mobile phone of another arrestee.
"Bomb and kill you all ... Long live democracy!" one of the suspects was quoted by the South China Morning Post newspaper as telling police.
The arrests come amid high political tensions, as members of Hong Kong's Legislative Council (LegCo) gear up for a three-day debate on an electoral reform plan approved by Beijing, which pan-democrats and participants in last year's 79-day Occupy Central pro-democracy movement have repeatedly dismissed as "fake universal suffrage."
Under the terms of an Aug. 31 decree from China's parliament, the National People's Congress (NPC), the city's five million voters will each cast a ballot in the 2017 race for chief executive, but they may only choose among candidate vetted by a pro-Beijing committee.
Critics say the arrangement will mean that no pan-democratic politicians, who currently hold 27 out of 60 LegCo seats, will be able to run in the election.
Pan-democratic lawmakers have vowed to block the plan when it is put to the vote, in spite of growing calls from "pro-establishment" Beijing-backed groups and officials to take what's on offer now, in the hope of greater democracy to come.
Police said evidence found at the scene of the alleged bomb plot suggests that the suspects are members of a Hong Kong-based "localist radical" group.
"Police officers will be deployed into the LegCo Complex for stand-by duties [on Tuesday evening]," a police statement said. "This is to ensure that ... police can make a quick and effective response to protect the safety of the LegCo members and staff."
It said reinforcements would be sent "according to the prevailing situation," but said the police presence was there to "facilitate all peaceful and lawful public events in a fair and impartial manner," not to impede freedom of expression.
Meanwhile chief executive Leung Chun-ying appeared to blame the Occupy Central mass civil disobedience movement in part for the alleged plot.
"Even if these activities are non-violent, if we rationalize them, we will only let people with a violent tendency use the same reason to rationalize their violent behavior," Leung told reporters on Tuesday.
"Hong Kong’s community should not tolerate any illegal activities, no matter whether these activities are nonviolent or violent," he said. “Illegal is illegal."
But Hong Kong activists hit out at what they said was a dubious attempt to connect the bomb-making suspects to the "localist" campaign that seeks to emphasize the city's unique identity and political freedoms, and which includes a minority of independence advocates.
"The police described [the suspects] as localist radicals, but are they radical?" Leung Kam-shing, who heads the Sheung Shui Parallel Traders' Concern Group campaigning against cross-border bulk-buying groups, told RFA.
"What exactly constitutes a localist radical group? There are so many localist groups in Hong Kong; it seems as if the police are saying that ... anyone who speaks up in favor of localism is a radical," Leung said.
"I don't think that's fair."
Pro-independence activist Roy Wong said propaganda materials found during the raid on the bombing suspects were different from that of Hong Kong's localist groups, and used wording that is more often used by the Chinese government and the tightly controlled state media.
"I'll say it clearly: we don't know this bunch of people, nor what they were planning to do with the explosives they were caught with," Wong told local media.
"Actually, there's not even any evidence linking them to LegCo, and there should be some proof shown to local people that they were even part of the localist faction," he said.
Pan-democratic politicians and activists on Sunday launched a five-day rally "against fake universal suffrage," but the rally only drew some 3,500 activists, a far cry from the hundreds of thousands who turned out at the height of the "Umbrella Movement" last year.
"LegCo members may have their own political views [regarding the reform package], but they should listen to the views of the electorate and find out what citizens think," a participant surnamed Ho told RFA.
A protester surnamed Ng said he wanted to let the government know how important fully democratic elections are to the people of Hong Kong.
"Now it's going to be the central government who chooses people," Ng said. "I didn't care how hot it was, or how tired I am; I had to come out."
"This is about the fate of Hong Kong."
Pro-establishment protesters also came out in protest.
"What reason do we have not to take what's on offer for now?" Patrick Ko, spokesman for the pro-Beijing group Voice of Loving Hong Kong, told reporters.
"It's as if everyone in Hong Kong decided that they only want to eat rice, with no dishes," he said. "We'd like three dishes and a soup, please."
Rally organizer Johnson Yeung said the pro-democracy camp will meet to discuss its next move following the LegCo vote.
But he said there would likely be no call for a repeat of Occupy Central, also dubbed the Umbrella Movement after protesters used umbrellas to defend themselves from tear-gas and pepper spray.
"We won't be calling on citizens to occupy anything," Yeung said. "If there is no big crisis during the vote ... I don't think that many people would turn out."
"That wouldn't serve our aims."
Reported by Lin Jing for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Xin Lin for the Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.