HONG KONG: A march drawing tens of thousands of anti-government protesters in Hong Kong on New Year's Day spiralled into chaotic scenes as police fired several rounds of tear gas and water cannon at crowds including families before halting the event.
The violence broke out during the largely peaceful march as masses of citizens pressed authorities for further concessions.
In the Wan Chai bar district, some protesters had spray-painted graffiti and smashed cash machines in an HSBC bank branch when riot police moved in, pepper-spraying crowds in a tense face-off. Tear gas was then fired into the crowds, making some children cry.
The protesters, some with gas masks and clad in black, regrouped and formed their own lines as police blocked roads to prevent large crowds from completing the march as night fell.
The atmosphere also grew tense in several districts on Hong Kong island, as hundreds of protesters dug in, forming road blocks, setting fires and throwing a few petrol bombs. Human chains formed down roads to help ferry supplies to people on the frontlines, including umbrellas and bricks.
Protesters have directed their ire at global banking group HSBC alleging a link between the arrest of four members of a group that raised funds to support the protesters and an earlier closure of an HSBC account linked to the group. HSBC deny any connection.
A bronze lion at the bank's headquarters was daubed with red paint and scorched by a fire.
A bank spokesman said: "We strongly condemn the acts of vandalism and damage directed at our premises repeatedly in the last few days. We believe these are unjustified."
The Civil Human Rights Front (CHRF), the umbrella group which organised the march, had permission for the march from city authorities, but they were ordered to end it soon after the clashes began.
"We believe the total turnout for today's march has surpassed the 1.03 million on Jun 9," the group announced, referring to the massive rally last year that kicked off the protest movement in earnest.
Hong Kong police said they had arrested "around 400" people.
The arrests were made for offences including "unlawful assembly and possession of offensive weapons", senior superintendent Jim Ng said at a press conference, adding that police had asked for the rally to be terminated earlier than planned because of unrest.
READ: Grand Theft Protest: Hong Kongers and Chinese gamers battle online
Hong Kong has been embroiled in more than six months of anti-government protests that have now spilled into 2020, with protesters demands including full democracy and an independent inquiry into allegations of police brutality
Thousands of anti-government protesters earlier gathered on a grass lawn in Victoria Park under grey skies. Citizens young and old, many dressed in black and some masked, carried signs such as "Freedom is not free" before setting off.
READ: Hong Kong police say suspect fired shot during protest-related arrest
"It's hard to utter 'Happy New Year' because Hong Kong people are not happy," said a man named Tung, who was walking with his two-year-old son, mother and niece.
"Unless the five demands are achieved, and police are held accountable for their brutality, then we can't have a real happy new year," he added, referring to the push for concessions from the government including amnesty for the more than 6,500 people arrested so far.
READ: Hong Kong police paid US$17 million in allowances related to protests
Along the march route, a number of newly elected pro-democracy district politicians mingled with the crowds on their first day in office, some helping collect donations to assist the movement.
"The government has already started the oppression before the New Year began ... whoever is being oppressed, we will stand with them," said Jimmy Sham, one of the leaders of the Civil Human Rights Front.
"It is sad that our demands from 2019 need to be carried forward to 2020," he added.
Thousands of Hong Kong revellers had earlier welcomed in 2020 on neon-lit promenades along the iconic skyline of Victoria Harbour, chanting the movement's signature eight-word Chinese protest couplet - "Liberate Hong Kong. Revolution of our Time" - for the final eight seconds before clocks struck midnight.
A sea of protesters then surged down Nathan Road, a major boulevard, blocking all lanes in a spontaneous march breaking out within minutes of the new decade. Some held signs reading "Let’s keep fighting together in 2020".
READ: How murder, kidnappings and miscalculation set off Hong Kong’s revolt
Overnight, police fired tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannons during some brief standoffs.
China's President Xi Jinping said in a New Year's speech that Beijing will "resolutely safeguard the prosperity and stability" of Hong Kong under the so-called "one country, two systems" framework.
Many people in Hong Kong are angered by Beijing's tight grip on the city which was promised a high degree of autonomy under this framework when the former British colony returned to Chinese rule in 1997.
Beijing denies interference and blames the West for fomenting the unrest.
A group of 40 parliamentarians and dignitaries from 18 countries had written an open letter to Hong Kong's leader Carrie Lam on New Year's Eve, urging her to "seek genuine ways forward out of this crisis by addressing the grievances of Hong Kong people."
The protest movement is supported by 59 per cent of the city's residents polled in a survey conducted for Reuters by the Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute.
READ: Young democrats shake up pro-Beijing stronghold in Hong Kong
Demonstrations have grown increasingly violent in recent months, at times paralyzing the Asian financial centre.
Protesters have thrown petrol bombs and rocks, with police responding with tear gas, water cannon, pepper spray, rubber bullets and occasional live rounds. There have been several injuries.
Follow us on Telegram for the latest on Hong Kong: https://cna.asia/telegram