Hong Kong police managed to thwart plans by anti-government protesters to block access to the international airport, but fired tear gas to disperse protesters elsewhere in the city for a second night in a row.
Saturday’s planned airport disruption was the demonstrators’ first mass mobilisation since the semi-autonomous territory’s leader made a surprise concession earlier this week.
But this time around, police were ready, with authorities searching public transport heading for the airport ahead of what was planned to be a “stress test” of road and rail links to one of the world’s busiest airports.
Al Jazeera’s Adrian Brown, reporting from Hong Kong, said the protesters’ efforts were staved off by authorities limiting transport services, stepping up security at train stations and setting up roadblocks along the main expressway leading to the facility.
“The police have been flooding the area around the airport in much greater numbers,” Brown said, underlining a “change in approach” after months of widespread and sometimes violent rallies.
“There’s been a real change in the police tactics; they’ve been much more proactive now, they are stopping people they suspect of being protesters, which of course raises a number of human rights concerns. These tactics will be supported by some sectors of the Hong Kong society but, of course, they will be condemned by many others.”
On Wednesday, the city’s China-backed leader Carrie Lam announced that she was scrapping a hugely unpopular extradition law that sparked the mass rallies.
The withdrawal was one of the protesters’ key demands and both she and Beijing had previously refused to budge on the issue.
Lam, who was not directly elected but appointed by an overwhelmingly Beijing-friendly committee, portrayed the move as a bid to de-escalate tensions and start a dialogue.
Only passengers were allowed to enter the airport building on Saturday or to use the Airport Express, boarding in central Hong Kong. The trains also were not stopping en route on the Kowloon Peninsula.
The measures were aimed at avoiding the chaos of last weekend, when protesters blocked airport approach roads, threw debris on the train track and trashed the MTR subway station in the nearby town of Tung Chung in running clashes with police.
Protesters had also occupied the airport’s arrival hall last month, halting and delaying flights, amid a series of clashes with police.
Demonstrators had called for supporters to gather in the mid-afternoon and authorities warned that plans to use fake boarding passes to gain entry to the airport could land offenders up to 14 years in prison.
“There is a heavy security presence and frequent checks at the airport and around its 14km perimeter,” Al Jazeera’s Divya Gopalan, reporting from an entrance to the facility, said.
“The police have been very vigilant. They are checking young people, even if they do not have apparent protest gear,” she also said.
“Meanwhile, protesters are trying various ways to sneak into the airport for their protest. Organisers have called on the protesters to act like passengers, not to wear protest gear and print fake tickets if they can,” Gopalan added.
Despite the largely foiled airport plan, protesters still gathered at MTR metro stations and malls belonging to the rail link operator MTR Corp. on Saturday afternoon for a second day of standoffs with police.
On Friday night, hundreds of protesters, many masked and dressed in black, attacked MTR metro stations on the Kowloon Peninsula, tearing down signs, breaking turnstiles, and setting fires on the street and daubed graffiti on the walls. The government called the behaviour “outrageous”.
Demonstrators renewed their calls for the MTR operator to release security camera footage, which they believe will substantiate rumors that some people died during a violent police raid at the Prince Edward subway station on Aug. 31.
In a statement Saturday, police reiterated that there had been no deaths since the protests began in early June, saying online rumors of deaths were malicious and aimed at sowing deeper division in society.
In Tung Chung, at a metro station and shopping area adjacent to the airport, protestors chanted slogans and called police “murderers”. Shops were shuttered and the station was shut down into the evening.
At the Prince Edward station in the Mong Kok district, protesters also gathered, prompting authorities to shut it down late Saturday. As night fell, demonstrators moved to the neighbouring police station, where they pointed laser beams at officers and later set fire to a pile of plastic foam boxes and other debris across the road.
Riot police chased them at various points and were seen using pepper spray and tear gas, but protesters kept regrouping in familiar cat-and-mouse battles.
The scrapped bill would have allowed extraditions to mainland China, despite Hong Kong having an independent judiciary dating back to British rule.
However, the demonstrations, which began in June, have long since broadened into calls for more democracy and many protesters have pledged to fight on. Other demands include the release of those arrested for violence, an independent inquiry into perceived police brutality.
Demonstrations have at times paralysed parts of the city, a major Asian financial hub, amid running street battles between protesters and police who have responded with tear gas, pepper spray and water cannon. Violent arrests of protesters have drawn international attention.
Hong Kong returned to China in 1997 under the “one country, two systems” formula that guarantees freedoms not enjoyed on the mainland. Many Hong Kong residents fear Beijing is eroding that autonomy.
China denies the accusation of meddling and says Hong Kong is its internal affair. It has denounced the protests, warning of the damage to the economy and the possible use of force to quell the unrest.