Clashes between pro-Beijing demonstrators and Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protesters have broken out in a crowded shopping area, the most recent skirmishes in months of protests in the city.
Hundreds of pro-Beijing demonstrators waved Chinese flags and chanted slogans on Saturday at Amoy Plaza in the densely packed Kowloon district.
Counter-protesters, who have been for months rallying against the government, quickly gathered there, sparking tension as the two camps heckled each other.
The standoff underlined the increased polarisation in the city as protests entered their 15th week.
The pro-Beijing demonstrators chanted “Support the police” and “China, add oil”, while also adapting a line used by the opposing pro-democracy protesters, loosely meaning: “China, keep your strength up.”
In one instance, a woman shouted “Hong Kong is China” at an angry passersby, who yelled obscenities in return.
At another point, pro-democracy protesters began impromptu renditions of a popular protest anthem, prompting rival demonstrators to sing China’s national anthem.
However, the situation soon turned violent, with groups trading blows and some using umbrellas and Chinese flags to attack their opponents.
The scuffles left some people visibly bloodied and bruised before police moved in to break up the fights. Several protesters were detained.
The protests across the city, which were originally sparked by a bill that would allow Beijing to extradite residents to the mainland, have often ended in violence, usually between pro-democracy demonstrators and police.
Those clashes have become more violent in recent weeks, with riot police firing tear gas as protesters vandalised subway stations, set fires and blocked traffic.
While Hong Kong’s chief executive Carrie Lam announced the withdrawal of the extradition bill, the protests have since grown beyond the demand to include the retraction of the word “riot” from describing rallies, releasing all detained demonstrators, launching an independent inquiry into alleged police brutality, and the right for Hong Kong people to choose their own leaders.
Other clashes were reported in the district of Fortress Hill on Saturday, where a group of men, many waving Chinese flags and wearing blue T-shirts declaring “I love HK police”, attacked people perceived to be pro-democracy protesters, according to the AFP news agency.
Multiple videos posted online showed the group of men assaulting largely younger victims with large flags on poles, as well as punching and kicking, as terrified onlookers ran away.
Hong Kong police did not respond to a request for comment on the incident.
Elsewhere in the city, anti-government protesters marched in the northwestern New Territories district of Tin Shui Wai.
Many waved American flags and chanted: “Liberate Hong Kong.”
“We need to keep coming out to tell the government to respond to our five demands, otherwise it will think we accept the withdrawal (of an extradition bill),” protester Mandy, 26, told Reuters news agency.
Reporting from the district, which borders mainland China, Al Jazeera’s Sarah Clarke said the protesters had marched to a park, but were denied access by police who had previously rejected an application to hold a rally there.
“At the moment the protesters have said they will not back down until their five demands have been met,” Clarke said.
Some 200 high school students also staged a sit-in at a downtown public square.
“Many students feel angry and unhappy,” Lia Ng, 14, told the Associated Press news agency. “Today’s gathering is a platform for us to vent our frustrations.”
More protests to come
Saturday’s clashes came after several nights of peaceful rallies.
On Friday, thousands of people carried lanterns with pro-democracy messages and formed illuminated human chains on two of the city’s peaks to mark the annual mid-autumn festival.
Demonstrators also plan to gather outside the British consulate on Sunday to demand that China honour a 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration, which laid out the former British colony’s future after its return to China in 1997.
Britain has said it has a legal responsibility to ensure China abides by its obligations under the declaration.
Under the agreement, Hong Kong returned to China under a “one country, two systems” formula that guarantees freedoms not enjoyed on the mainland, including a much-cherished independent legal system.
China, which has accused Western powers of fomenting dissent, has said it honours the declaration and is not meddling in the situation in Hong Kong.
However, Beijing has maintained that the weeks of unrest should be treated by the international community as an internal Chinese affair.
The unrest has further battered Hong Kong’s economy, which was already reeling from the trade war between the US and China. It is also seen as an embarrassment to China’s ruling Communist Party ahead of October 1 National Day celebrations.
More than 1,300 people have been arrested since the protests began.