UPDATED at 4:25 P.M. EDT on 2019-07-22
Police in Hong Kong arrested six men on Monday, some of whom had links to triads, after bloody attacks on shoppers and a pro-democracy lawmaker by unidentified men wielding makeshift weapons at a Hong Kong mall.
The vicious attacks were carried out by unidentified thugs in white T-shirts wielding wooden and metal poles, whom many fear were members of Hong Kong's criminal underworld of triads recruited by Beijing to intimidate anti-extradition and pro-democracy protesters.
They came just hours after anti-extradition protesters had defaced the emblem of the People's Republic of China outside Beijing's Central Liaison Office following an anti-extradition march of half a million people.
While the arrested men had all been wearing white T-shirts, they were arrested on suspicion of "illegal assembly" rather than assault charges following a string of indiscriminate beatings that left dozens seeking medical attention in Hong Kong hospitals, police commissioner Stephen Lo told journalists.
Photos were also posted on social media on Monday showing police wearing full riot gear strolling next to some men in white T-shirts, adding fuel to fears that the men had been hired to strike fear into political protesters and that police had colluded with the attacks.
The collusion theory was also underpinned by unanswered questions over why it took police who arrived in at Yuen Long's suburban line railway station more than an hour to intervene, during which time the attackers continued to attack passengers and passers-by.
Shops remained closed in the Yoho Mall attached to the railway station on Monday, with very few people around, giving the development the air of a frightened ghost town.
Chief executive Carrie Lam moved to dampen speculation that the attacks happened with tacit official approval on Monday, condemning the perpetrators of the violence in a statement to the media, in which she called the attacks "unacceptable,"
"Any explanation that lays responsibility for these attacks at the door of the Hong Kong government, or that blames me for them personally, has no basis in fact, because everyone has a duty to distance themselves from violence," Lam said.
"There is also no basis for saying that our colleagues in the police force were in league with these violent thugs," she said.
'Lack of faith in our police force'
Commissioner Lo also condemned the attackers' "lawless acts," and said the police wouldn't let the matter drop.
He also sought to dismiss fears that police hadn't acted sooner or arrested any of the white-shirted men for possession of an offensive weapon.
"Far from being triad members, we are opposed to anyone who breaks the law," Lo said. "All of these claims stem from a lack of faith in our police force, so I hope people will try to have more faith in the police."
Meanwhile, several hundred people went to make complaints to the police watchdog over the failure of police to send backup sooner to aid the officers already at the scene.
A police officer who declined to be named said morale among the Hong Kong police is at a low ebb, and that the force is understaffed in suburbs like Yuen Long.
"The reason no police came to the scene was that most of the officers had been transferred to protect Central district [where half a million anti-extradition protesters marched on Sunday], and there were very few left in Yuen Long," the officer said.
"All they could do, without the numbers or the resources, was to report the situation to their commanding officers and wait until they had more officers and equipment before trying to restore order."
Civic Party lawmaker Alvin Yeung said the government and police were lying," however.
"Please stop lying, because we saw on the live feeds yesterday evening that the officer supposedly in command was somehow unable to see the weapons, so what exactly were those guys in white shirts carrying?" Yeung said.
"The police should quit fooling themselves and everyone else," he said. "Was Yuen Long somehow outside of Hong Kong's jurisdiction last night? Did it declare independence? Did Hong Kong law somehow no longer apply there?"
"Dozens of people got attacked on that train of death, and you are telling me that this was done by ordinary Hong Kong citizens? It was the triads who attacked the people of Hong Kong," Yeung said.
Failure to intervene on time
The attacks in the suburb of Yuen Long left dozens of people in hospital amid growing public outrage at the failure of the city's police force to intervene in a timely manner.
Dozens of men in white shirts gathered near the Yoho Mall, part of the Yuen Long MTR subway station development, at around 6.00 p.m, according to social media posts.
Some wore slogans that read "Protect Yuen Long" and "Guarding our homeland."
Members of the group began attacking and intimidating members of the public standing on an suburban rail platform, while another group entered the adjacent subway station at around 11.00 p.m.
Some social media reports said they were targeting anyone wearing black, in the belief that they had attended a mass anti-extradition rally earlier in the day, where protesters typically wear black T-shirts. However, other reports said they were attacking people indiscriminately.
Some passengers fought back with umbrellas, and even a fire extinguisher during the attacks, which lasted for over an hour before riot police moved in, according to eyewitness and local media reports.
"Angry thugs forced open shuttered entrance with rods in their hands," off-duty journalist Jeffie Lam, who lives nearby, wrote in a thread on her Twitter account.
"Residents ran towards the mall as fast as they could. Some failed, got caught and attacked, with blood all over their face ... And there were no police officers. None," Lam wrote.
Jeffie Lam said some of the attackers had been carrying Chinese national flags.
"The men attacked anyone in the station indiscriminately, many of whom returned from the #antiELAB [anti-extradition] protest or just came over to support," she wrote. "They attacked people fiercely."
At least 45 people were sent to hospital, with one in critical condition and five in serious condition. Pro-democracy lawmaker Lam Cheuk-ting and at least one journalist were among those injured, according to social media posts.
Police took an hour to move
MTR staff, who were also attacked by the mob, called the police, but officers didn't move in for at least an hour, during which time the attacks continued.
The MTR corporation announced the closure of Yuen Long station after a large crowd gathered.
Hundreds of community members and anti-extradition protesters said they would continue to patrol the area around the mall in a bid to protect local residents from further attacks.
March organizers the Civil Human Rights Front issued a statement strongly condemning the attacks on the public in Yuen Long, hitting out at the police for indulging the white-shirted "mob."
Police superintendent Yau Nai-keung, assistant commander of Yuen Long District, said they had received a call for help shortly before 11.00 p.m. on Sunday, and a team of officers were dispatched to the station.
He said that the patrol team hadn't intervened because they felt "their safety could not be guaranteed."
He said the failure of police to arrest some suspected attackers was due to uncertainty over their identity.
“Even those dressed in white, that doesn’t mean they are involved in the conflict," Yau told an early morning news conference that was reported by government broadcaster RTHK. "We will handle each case fairly – no matter the political camp they belong to."
Earlier, the station quoted Police Pat Heung division commander Li Hon-man as responding mockingly to journalists' questions about the length of time it took police to respond, replying that he "didn't have a chance to look at his watch."
Earlier in the day, anti-extradition protesters vandalized Beijing's Central Liaison Office in Sheung Wan district at the tail end of a peaceful mass protest against plans to allow the extradition of alleged criminal suspects to face trial in mainland China.
'Confrontations and injuries'
The administration of chief executive Carrie Lam issued a statement condemning violence, but focused on "outrageous" damage to property at the Central Liaison Office, mentioning the unprovoked attacks on people only further down the statement.
"These outrageous acts included hurling petrol bombs, setting fires, throwing bricks and blocking thoroughfares," the statement said.
"In Yuen Long, some people congregated at the MTR station platforms and the train compartments where they attacked commuters. This led to confrontations and injuries," it said.
Hundreds of people gathered outside the Central Liaison Office, a towering symbol of ruling Chinese Communist Party power in the city, and the frequent target of protests, after the main anti-extradition protest numbering nearly half a million had dispersed, according to online video footage.
Some protesters threw eggs at the building, while others painted over the emblem of the People's Republic of China in black and daubed graffiti over the official plaque on the office's gates.
The crowd chanted "Oppose rendition to China! Oppose the evil law! Investigate police violence!"
One protester at the scene told RFA: "We are a bunch of Hong Kong protesters who have been turning out in our millions since the beginning of June in a number of peaceful, non-violent and rational protests, including marches, to tell the government and the rest of the world to accede to our demands and opposition to renditions to China."
"There are also five upstanding people who haven't hesitated to lay down their lives for the cause, but sadly it seems that all that sweat and blood has flowed in vain," the protester said, in an apparent reference to recent suicides of anti-extradition protesters.
Office director Wang Zhimin said the "rioters" had hurt the feelings of the Chinese people and the dignity of China's national emblems, which were replaced overnight.
"The radicals devastated facilities, defaced the national emblem, painted words insulting the country and nation, which had (gone) far beyond a peaceful demonstration," the office said in a statement cited by state news agency Xinhua.
"Those behaviors have ... seriously challenged ... the authority of the central government," the statement said.
Protesters are calling on Lam to formally withdraw amendments tabled to the Legislative Council that would allow the rendition of alleged criminal suspects from Hong Kong to face criminal proceedings in mainland China.
Critics say the move would undermine the legal "firewall" between two very different political and judicial systems and likely call into question Hong Kong's status as a separate trading port.
They also want an amnesty for anyone arrested during mass protests against the amendments to the Fugitive Offenders Ordinance in recent weeks.
The amendments are widely seen as a threat to Hong Kong's way of life, which was supposed to have been protected by the "one country, two systems" framework under which the former British colony was handed back to China in 1997.
If they become law, the city could lose its status as a separate legal jurisdiction and trading entity, while journalists, visitors, rights activists, dissidents, democratic politicians, and members of the business community could be targeted for words and actions deemed illegal by Chinese officials.
They could then be extradited to face trial in Chinese courts, which are directly controlled by the ruling Chinese Communist Party.
Students, march organizers, and pro-democracy lawmakers have all rejected government attempts at initiating discussions, demanding an amnesty for all those arrested in connection with recent protests, an end to the official description of protesters as "rioting", and the formal withdrawal of the planned amendments before the end of the current LegCo term in 2020.
Lam has said the amendments are "dead" and will expire at the end of the current term of the Legislative Council in 2020, but campaigners say her assertion offers no legal guarantees.
Reported by Tam Siu-yin and Lau Siu-fung for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Lu Xi for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.