Special force police officers burst into a Hong Kong subway station late on Saturday, firing rubber bullets and pepper spray at protesters, bystanders and journalists alike, and leaving fresh bloodstains where triad-linked thugs in white shirts had attacked passengers less than a week before.
The incident at the Yuen Long MTR station came after protesters turned a fire hose and extinguishers on advancing riot police at the tail end of a protest against triad-related violence that had seen a standoff between police and thousands of protesters that lasted several hours in oppressive heat.
Earlier, regular uniformed police in riot gear fired tear gas, rubber bullets, and pepper spray at thousands of demonstrators who gathered in the small town of Yuen Long on Saturday, in protest over violent attacks by suspected triad gangs at the local subway station last weekend.
The protesters—many of whom wore black clothing, protective masks and helmets, and carried umbrellas for protection—converged on the town in spite of a police ban on the march, and gathered in their thousands on the town's main street, chanting "Free Hong Kong!" and hurling insults at police.
They chose Yuen Long as the location in an outpouring of defiance against vicious attacks on train passengers at the town's MTR station following a mass anti-extradition protest after which some protesters sprayed the People's Republic of China national emblem with black paint and threw eggs at the Central Liaison Office of the ruling Chinese Communist Party in Sheung Wan district.
As night fell on Yuen Long, police used tear gas, rubber bullets, pepper spray and perspex shields to force the majority of protesters to leave the main street, while the MTR Corporation laid on extra subway trains to encourage them to leave, and stopped incoming trains from stopping at the site of the clashes.
One journalist, who was clearly identified as such, was hit in the head with a rubber bullet, which penetrated his protective helmet, according to an Apple Daily live video feed.
Another journalist was given first aid by protesters after being hit by tear gas fired close to a group of reporters, all of whom wore helmets and high-viz jackets marked with the word PRESS.
Search for evidence
Some protesters were also in search of evidence relating to the Yuen Long attacks.
Social media posts showed two smashed cars that protesters said "belonged to triads." Protesters also found a stash of wooden poles similar to those used in last weekend's white-shirt attacks in the trunk of one of the cars, a Lexus, Hong Kong's English-language South China Morning Post newspaper reported via Twitter.
An unsourced image circulating on Telegram and reposted to Twitter meanwhile showed similar batons in the trunk of a second car.
One tweet said a cap that was apparently People's Liberation Army (PLA) issue was also found in one car.
"Protestors found weapons and a hat that belonged to PLA on a suspicious car in Yuen Long, Hong Kong during the protest against the colluding of Hong Kong Government, China’s Liaison Office and triad groups," the tweet, from @wlyip2810, said.
Video footage shot as protesters faced off with riot police outside Sai Pin Wai village, near Yuen Long MTR station, showed bricks littering the ground, while protesters played pocket laser torches over the faces of the officers, who responded with strobe lighting as night fell.
While thousands of protesters left Yuen Long when ordered to leave, purchasing large numbers of one-way single tickets for cash to avoid detection via their Octopus smart cards, hundreds of others dug in at barricades, using wheelie bins, makeshift wooden shields held on with cable ties, and the now-iconic umbrellas to shield themselves.
Tear gas fired
Police continued to fire tear gas and rubber bullets at the protesters, who raised a black version of Hong Kong's bauhinia flag and dug in.
Throughout the afternoon, protesters dealt with incoming tear gas canisters in a fast and coordinated way, first covering them with trash cans or traffic cones, before dousing them with water and extinguishing them, live video streams showed.
One protester used a tennis racket to hit the canisters back in the direction of police.
Shortly before 10.00 p.m. local time, police issued a warning that anyone who refused to leave would be arrested for "illegal assembly."
"The police are warning that if there are still people who refuse to leave, they will be arrested," the Hong Kong Police Force said via its official Twitter account.
"The people involved have committed the offense of illegal assembly under the Public Order Ordinance ... for which the maximum penalty is five years' imprisonment," the tweet said.
Shortly afterwards, riot police moved in to clear the last few hundred protesters, who retreated across a footbridge to the MTR station, where they turned a fire hose on several ranks of advancing police on the street below.
Anger at police
Last Sunday's attacks, which put 45 people in hospital and left one in a critical condition, have sparked widespread public anger at the police, who waited nearly an hour before moving in on the attackers.
Twelve people have been arrested in connection with the attacks, nine of whom have known triad links.
Protesters plastered posters across walls and public spaces on Saturday, featuring combinations of Chinese characters meaning "corrupt" and "police" together with "violent" and "government." Spray-painted graffiti also took aim at police and the administration of chief executive Carrie Lam.
The Paris-based press freedom group Reporters Without Borders (RSF) called on Lam to take steps to ensure press freedom, among growing incidents of injuries to journalists covering the protests at the hands of the police.
"During the mass demonstrations over the last two months, police and pro-Beijing demonstrators have attacked journalists on numerous occasions," RSF secretary general Christophe Deloire wrote in an open letter to Lam published in the South China Morning Post.
"Violence culminated on July 21 at Yuen Long MTR station when mobsters viciously attacked civilians, including journalists, while law enforcement looked the other way," the letter said.
It also called on Lam to "unequivocally withdraw" amendments to the Fugitive Offenders Ordinance that would allow the extradition of anyone Beijing names as a "criminal suspect" to be extradited to face trial in mainland Chinese courts, and to ensure the protection and facilitation of journalists at all times by police and public officials.
But public employees were busy barricading China's Central Liaison Office with two-meter high barricades, and gluing down ubiquitous pavement bricks to prevent protesters from digging them up and throwing them, according to social media reports.
Protests at airport
The Yuen Long clashes came after thousands of protesters including airline and travel industry staff gathered at Hong Kong's international airport on Friday in a peaceful demonstration against renditions to China.
Protesters are calling on Lam to formally withdraw amendments tabled to the Legislative Council (LegCo) that would allow the rendition of alleged suspects from Hong Kong to face criminal proceedings in mainland China.
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.
Lam has said the amendments are "dead" and will expire at the end of the current LegCo term in 2020, but campaigners say her assertion offers no legal guarantees.
Reported by RFA's Cantonese and Mandarin Services. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.