A massive pro-democracy rally in Hong Kong ended early after violence erupted, with police firing tear gas and water cannon after protesters threw bricks and firebombs at government buildings.
Police said “radical protesters” lobbed petrol bombs and damaged property outside government offices, and aimed laser beams at a helicopter, posing “a serious threat to the safety of everyone” in the area.
The violence was a familiar scene that has been repeated since protests for democratic reforms started in early June in the Chinese territory.
It also came three days before a major march is planned on the day China celebrates the 70th anniversary of the Communist Party taking power, sparking fears of bloody clashes that could embarrass Beijing.
Organisers said up to 300,000 people attended Saturday’s rally, which was called to mark the fifth anniversary of the start of the 2014 Umbrella Movement. In that, protesters occupied key thoroughfares in the city centre for 79 days to demand direct elections for the city’s leaders but failed to win any government concessions.
Police did not give a figure for the size of Saturday’s march.
Police initially used a hose to fire pepper spray after some demonstrators threw bricks, and later used a water cannon truck to fire a blue liquid, used to identify protesters, and fired tear gas after protesters lobbed petrol bombs.
Many protesters used umbrellas to shield themselves and retreated but returned after that. Scores of riot police poured in and the protesters later fled. Police continued to patrol the streets and searched people leaving the area.
Protester Sang Chan, 22, said: “We think we will lose because their force is so strong. But if we don’t do anything now, we’ll have no other chance.”
A 32-year-old protester who would give only his surname, Chau, said the demonstrators hope to wear down the government. “It’s like a marathon to see who gets tired first,” he added.
At the height of the protest, activists unfurled a large banner that read “We are back” on a footbridge to the government office. A staircase leading to the bridge was turned into a veritable gallery of protest art, with posters stuck on every available surface of the walkway.
One read: “Persevere until final victory.”
Some protesters trampled on pictures of Chinese President Xi Jinping and Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam that were glued to the floor. At one of the gates to Ms Lam’s office, the Chinese word for “hell” and an arrow pointing to the building were spray-painted on the pavement.
Activist Joshua Wong, who played a key role as a youth leader in the 2014 protests, told the rally the people “are back with even stronger determination” to win the battle for more rights.
Earlier in the day, the 22-year-old announced plans to contest district council elections in November.
Mr Wong, who has been arrested and jailed repeatedly, said he is aware he could be disqualified but warned it would just generate more support for the protest movement.
In response to the rally, a government spokesman said universal suffrage is enshrined in Hong Kong’s constitution but called for peaceful dialogue. The spokesman said in a statement that the government would “assess the situation carefully and take forward constitutional development” in accordance with the law.