HONG KONG: Hong Kong riot police and protesters braced early on Thursday (Jun 13) for possible further clashes across the city's financial district after a day of violence over an extradition Bill that would allow people to be sent to mainland China for trial.
As of 10pm on Wednesday evening, 72 people had been hospitalised, including two classified as serious, according to the Hong Kong Hospital Authority.
An uneasy calm had settled over the city after police fired rubber bullets, tear gas and pepper spray in a series of skirmishes to clear demonstrators from the city's legislature.
It marked some of the worst violence to rock the financial hub since Britain handed it back to Chinese rule in 1997 with a guarantee of extensive autonomy and freedoms, including a separate legal system and freedom of speech.
The extradition Bill has sparked unusually wide concerns, both locally and internationally, that it risks further encroachment from Chinese officials and threatens the rule of law that underpins its international financial status.
Hundreds of riot police could be seen resting and re-grouping overnight while gaggles of protesters obtained fresh supplies of water, goggles and helmets, Reuters witnesses reported.
Some could be seen strapping exposed arms and legs with cling wrap to guard against the impact of tear gas as many braced for more police charges before dawn.
Several thousand demonstrators remained near the legislature in the Admiralty district, while thousands more had retreated to the Central business district, overlooked by the towers of some of Asia's biggest firms and hotel chains, including HSBC and AIA and the Mandarin Oriental.
Clashes broke out hours after tens of thousands of people seized key arteries in the morning rush hour and surrounded the city's parliament, forcing lawmakers to postpone a debate on the proposed law.
Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam, who is championing the law's passage, described the protests as "organised riots" and called for calm to be restored.
"The rioting actions that damage peaceful society, ignoring law and discipline is unacceptable for any civilised societies," she said in a video statement.
Police earlier used tear gas, rubber bullets and batons to battle crowds of black-clad demonstrators - most of them young people and students - demanding authorities scrap the Beijing-backed law.
The scenes echoed the pro-democracy "Umbrella Movement" of 2014 where protesters calling for greater democratic rights shut down swathes of the city for two months and battled police, but won no concessions from Beijing.
This time police appeared determined not to let protesters hold any ground while the young demonstrators responded in kind, hurling projectiles including metal poles, bottles and bricks.
Tear gas sent the crowds scattering, but riot police continued to fight cat and mouse battles with their opponents into the evening, pushing them down towards the city's commercial centre and bringing it to a standstill.
Hong Kong has been convulsed by political unrest in recent years as fears surge that Beijing is trying to stamp on the city's unique freedoms and culture.
But Wednesday's violence was an unprecedented escalation of the conflict.
"In terms of the level of violence, today has been the most serious since the 1997 handover," political analyst Dixon Sing told AFP, citing the sustained use of tear gas, rubber bullets and bean bag rounds, as well as the willingness of protesters to take on the police.
"Today's events reflect a huge gap in the confidence Hong Kong people have towards the government. They increasingly believe the Hong Kong government are a bunch of puppets serving the interests of Beijing," he added.
The proposed law would allow Hong Kong to send suspects to other jurisdictions around the world - including China.
Hong Kong's leaders say it is needed to plug loopholes and to stop the city being a sanctuary for fugitives. They say safeguards are in place to ensure that political critics of Beijing will not be targeted.
But it is deeply unpopular, with fears people will become entangled in the mainland's opaque courts, leaving them vulnerable to a justice system seen as acting at the behest of the Chinese Communist Party.
Opposition to the Bill has united an unusually wide cross-section of the city in recent weeks, from influential businessmen and lawyers, to religious groups, student unions and workers.
On Sunday record crowds of around one million marched against the law.
That rally, however, failed to move pro-Beijing Lam, who has rejected calls to withdraw the Bill and vowed to fast track it through the legislature.
"The protest today took place solely because Carrie Lam ignored the voice of 1.03 million people, and refused to withdraw the Extradition Bill," the Civil Human Rights Front protest group said late Wednesday, accusing the police of being overly aggressive and halting people's ability to protest.
Police chief Stephen Lo defended his officers, saying they had shown restraint until "mobsters" tried to storm parliament.
"These violent protesters kept charging at our line of defence, and used very dangerous weapons, including ... throwing metal barricades at us and throwing bricks," he said.
But Amnesty International said police "took advantage of the violent acts of a small minority as a pretext to use excessive force against the vast majority of peaceful protesters."
Hong Kong's stock market sank nearly 1.8 per cent on Wednesday in the city-wide turmoil while the parliament cancelled the scheduled debate. But authorities are determined to have the law on the books as soon as possible.
Protesters have vowed to keep hitting the streets until the Bill is shelved.
"The only responsible thing to do now is for Carrie Lam to withdraw the evil Bill, or at least to shelve it in order to solve the crisis," said pro-democracy lawmaker Fernando Cheung.
"I will keep fighting," protester Kevin Leung, 20, told AFP late Wednesday. "Until our goal is achieved, we will keep going."
Many western nations have criticised the Bill, while Beijing has voiced support.
Under the handover agreement with Britain, China allowed Hong Kong to retain the freedoms and an independent judiciary that were integral to its economic success for 50 years.
But there are fears China is reneging on that deal, a slide that critics say has worsened since President Xi Jinping's ushered in an era of more authoritarian rule on the mainland.