'Critical moment' for Hong Kong protests after new clashes
Pro-democracy protesters yesterday accused police of using excessive force against them after violent clashes in Hong Kong, as a senior politician said weeks of rallies have reached a "critical moment".
Dozens of police with riot gear pushed into a crowd of angry demonstrators in the Mongkok district early Sunday, striking at them repeatedly with batons.
Twenty people were injured in a fourth night of clashes between protesters demanding free elections for the semi-autonomous Chinese city, and police trying to restore traffic to the major Mongkok thoroughfare they have brought to a standstill.
The spike in violence comes after three weeks of largely peaceful pro-democracy rallies and road blockades that have paralysed key parts of the Asian financial hub.
At a press conference at the Mongkok camp on Sunday, organisers blasted police for a response that left some demonstrators with head wounds, fractures and bruising, with others carried away on stretchers.
"If this goes on, one day there may be someone who loses his life or gets seriously injured -- then the situation in Hong Kong will get out of control," said activist Lam Cheuk-ting.
Police said in a statement they used "minimum force" as protesters "suddenly attempted to charge" their cordon lines.
Talks between student protest leaders and government officials are still set to go ahead on Tuesday despite the clashes -- but with little common ground between the two sides, there are slim hopes of a breakthrough.
China insists that candidates for the 2017 vote for Hong Kong's leader must be approved by a pro-Beijing committee -- a condition which the protesters dismiss as "fake democracy".
But Hong Kong's current leader Leung Chun-ying has warned that Chinese authorities have no intention of backing down.
Rallies have seen tens of thousands take to the streets several times over the last three weeks. Although numbers are dwindling, protesters still occupy key roads in the city.
The rallies are one of the biggest challenges to Beijing's authority since the Tiananmen pro-democracy protests of 1989.
- Plea for retreat -
Finance secretary John Tsang said Sunday the protests had reached a "critical moment" and urged the demonstrators to retreat.
"I was young before and I have taken part in various student movements," he wrote on his blog.
"Retreating is not an easy decision. It takes a lot of bravery. I still believe that you can take the courage to make right decisions at this critical moment."
Protest leaders addressing the crowds in Mongkok on Sunday suggested a three-day "cooling off period" could help lower simmering tensions between police and demonstrators.
"Those who are sick and tired, please go home for 72 hours to have a cooling-off period," said Ed Chin of Occupy Central, one of the main groups organising the protests.
Christian pastor Fung Chi-wood said the police, for their part, should pledge a lighter-handed approach.
"Police should promise the public not to use violence for three days to lower our temperament and anger," he told AFP.
Some protesters at Mongkok on Sunday wore hard hats and makeshift protective gear fashioned out of household items including baby mats. Posters stuck around the camp read: "Calm down. Don't forget our original purpose."
The government information service said 20 people involved in protest activities had been injured between 10pm and 6am overnight Saturday to Sunday -- but would not specify how many were demonstrators or police, the extent of the injuries, or if they all took place in the Mongkok area.
One volunteer medic said she had seen four people with head injuries with "serious bleeding" as well as a back fracture.
"They hit us without any reason when we were standing behind the roadblock. I was hit by a police stick four or five times," said 30-year-old protester Jackie, as he sat at a local hospital with his head bandaged and blood on his T-shirt.
"There was no aggressive action on our side."
Hong Kong's police force traditionally pride themselves as being "Asia's finest", but their reputation has taken a battering since they used tear gas against the protesters on September 28, with images of the chaotic street battles beamed around the world.
The latest surge in violence comes after video footage emerged last week showing plainclothes officers beating a handcuffed protester as he lay on the ground.
A former British colony, Hong Kong was handed back to Chinese rule in 1997 under a "one country, two systems" deal that guarantees freedoms not seen on the mainland, but fears have been growing that these liberties are being eroded.