HONG KONG: Hong Kong riot police fired tear gas at thousands of protesters, many wearing masks and reindeer horns, after scuffles in shopping malls and in a busy tourist district as anti-government rallies escalated into chaos on Christmas Eve.
Protesters inside shopping malls had thrown umbrellas and other objects at police, who responded by beating some demonstrators with batons, with one pointing his gun at the crowd, but not firing.
Hundreds of black-clad protesters had gathered in Harbour City mall on Tuesday evening, chanting slogans.
Tensions soon rose when a group of plainclothes police were discovered and surrounded within the sprawling shopping centre, an AFP reporter on the scene said.
The plainclothes officers made multiple arrests as the crowds threw objects and heckled them. Riot police quickly arrived at the scene, one aiming a shotgun at protesters as shops shuttered.
There were small rallies in multiple malls across the financial hub, clashing regularly with police.
Police fired tear gas to disperse protesters who had occupied the main roads and blocked traffic outside the malls and nearby luxury hotels, including the Peninsula, in the Tsim Sha Tsui tourist district of Kowloon.
Police said a large group of rioters had built barricades, damaged traffic lights and dug up bricks on the area's major thoroughfares.
There was a heavy police presence into the night with hundreds of officers standing guard on the roads as Christmas shoppers and tourists looked on.
Many families with children had congregated in the same area to view the Christmas lights along the promenade in the Tsim Sha Tsui East tourist district of Kowloon, the spectacular backdrop of Hong Kong island on the opposite side of the harbour.
The government later on Tuesday announced it was closing Kowloon Park in the Yau Tsim Mong district in response to the clashes, warning of further closures in other districts.
The protests, now in their seventh month, have lost some of the scale and intensity of earlier violent confrontations. A peaceful rally earlier this month still drew 800,000 people, according to organisers, showing strong support for the movement.
Scores of black clad, mask wearing protesters chanted slogans including "Revive Hong Kong, revolution of our time," and "Hong Kong independence" as they roamed the malls.
"Lots of people are shopping so it's a good opportunity to spread the message and tell people what we are fighting for," said Ken, an 18-year-old student.
"We fight for freedom, we fight for our future."
At one mall in the teeming Mong Kok district, police used pepper spray to disperse some protesters, according to Cable television.
Around 100 protesters trashed a Starbucks inside another mall called Mira Place, breaking the glass counters displaying pastries and spraying graffiti on the walls.
The coffee shop chain has been a common target of protesters after the daughter of the founder of Maxim's Caterers, which owns the local franchise, condemned the protesters before a UN human rights council in Geneva.
Demonstrators have previously defaced Starbucks around the city, daubing anti-China graffiti on its windows.
A mob also started a fire in a MTR station in Mong Kok, police said in a Facebook post.
Footage on social media showed a man in a mall in Yuen Long barging into police officers and leaping one floor below in a bid to avoid arrest.
Police said officers were responding to reports that protesters were vandalising shops in the mall.
The man who jumped over the glass barriers was taken to hospital in a conscious state and arrested for assault.
The Civil Human Rights Front, which has organised some of the biggest marches involving more than a million people, has applied to stage another march on New Year's Day.
Police have arrested more than 6,000 people since the protests escalated in June, including a large number during a protracted, violent siege at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University in mid-November.
Many Hong Kong residents are angry at what they see as Beijing's meddling in the freedoms promised to the former British colony when it returned to Chinese rule in 1997.
China denies interfering and says it is committed to the "one country, two systems" formula put in place at that time and has blamed foreign forces for fomenting unrest.
In a video posted on her Facebook page, Chief Executive Carrie Lam wished Hong Kong citizens "a peaceful and safe Merry Christmas".
Lam has so far refused to grant protesters' demands which include an independent inquiry into police behaviour and the implementation of full universal suffrage.
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