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Hong Kong officer fires shot; police use water cannons at protest

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Hong Kong police officers Sunday drew pistols on protesters who were charging them with sticks, and one fired a warning shot into the air after another officer fell, as a weekend of violent clashes brought an end to nearly two weeks of restraint.

[HONG KONG] Hong Kong police officers Sunday drew pistols on protesters who were charging them with sticks, and one fired a warning shot into the air after another officer fell, as a weekend of violent clashes brought an end to nearly two weeks of restraint.

The police on Sunday fired rounds of tear gas and plastic bullets at protesters who threw bricks and firebombs. They also used water-cannon trucks for the first time since protests began in June. What were initially demonstrations over an unpopular bill that would have allowed extraditions to mainland China have since expanded to include demands for greater democracy in the semi-autonomous Chinese region.

The confrontations in the Tsuen Wan area followed a peaceful march by more than 10,000 people. But in a pattern that has been established for months, more aggressive protesters began building barriers on city streets using sidewalk railings and bamboo poles. Soon, large numbers of police officers in riot gear arrived.

By early evening, the air was swirling with tear gas. The police unleashed water cannons against barriers and in the general direction of protesters.

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"I don't totally agree with what students do now, such as throwing bricks," said Celine Wong, 38, a nurse at a private clinic who joined the march. "However, what they do is eclipsed by the violence performed by the government now."

As the protest appeared to subside at night, a small group of demonstrators smashed up the entryway of a mahjong parlour they said had sheltered men who had attacked them weeks earlier. Then a group clashed with the police.

Jay Lau, 30, said he saw a small group of officers fighting with protesters wielding bamboo sticks and metal rods. The protesters were pushing the officers down Sha Tsui Road when, suddenly, Mr Lau said, he heard a gunshot. He said he did not see who fired.

Speaking to reporters early Monday, a police spokeswoman said that six officers raised their revolvers, and that one fired a warning shot into the air after the protesters had put the officers' lives in danger.

"The escalating illegal and violent acts of radical protesters are not only outrageous, they also push Hong Kong to the verge of a very dangerous situation," the police said in a statement.

The episode mirrored a similar encounter in 2016, when a police officer drew his gun and fired into the air after a colleague was charged by protesters.

Earlier Sunday, people who said they were relatives of the Hong Kong police rallied under pouring rain to criticise the government for its inability to find a solution to the crisis that has left front-line officers clashing with protesters for weeks on end.

The protests began in June over a bill that would have allowed extraditions to mainland China. Since suspending the legislation that set off the protests, Hong Kong's leader, Carrie Lam, has done little to respond to the protests, leaving the police force as the most public face of the government.

The protest by police supporters Sunday was small, with about 200 people attending, and police officials said it did not represent the views of the whole force. But the organisers' concerns that respect for the police force is eroding can be seen in confrontational protests, when officers are often bombarded with abuse from residents and bystanders.

Ivy Yuen, 40, works for a trading company in Hong Kong and has regularly attended this summer's protests. But she came to the police families' rally Sunday because, she said, she could sympathise with the difficult position that officers had found themselves in.

"There are still some good policemen working for Hong Kong," she said. "Unfortunately, the government chooses not to do anything."

"We are all so helpless in this moment," she continued, "everybody in Hong Kong: those against the protesters, the protesters themselves, the police, everybody."

A march Saturday ended with the police firing tear gas and rubber bullets at protesters who had thrown rocks and at least one gasoline bomb. That clash ended a nearly two-week period of relative calm that saw some standoffs, but not the use of tear gas.

It also followed two large, peaceful demonstrations that showed the continued strength and unity of the protest movement: a march by hundreds of thousands one week ago and the formation of human chains, illuminated by cellphone lights, across miles of Hong Kong on Friday.

The police said that in Saturday's protests, they arrested 19 men and 10 women, ages 17 to 52, during dispersal operations in the Kwun Tong, Wong Tai Sin and Sham Shui Po neighborhoods. A friend of Ventus Lau, the organiser of the Kwun Tong march, said he had also been arrested.

The rally by supporters of the police, organised under the slogan "We Are Not Enemies", criticised the government's use of the police force to manage a political crisis. Its organisers called for an independent committee to investigate the cause of the protests and the official response, and said that misbehaviour by some officers was causing the relationship between police officers and the public to "fall into a tragic abyss".

Police commanders distanced the force from the event. Foo Yat Ting, a senior police superintendent, said, "It does not represent the police force or the four police associations at all."

Ms Lam said Saturday that she had met with a group of people, identified in local news reports as former officials and some prominent politicians, to hear ideas for building "a platform for dialogue".

"I know that in the current predicament, the grievances of the community are deep," she wrote on Facebook, adding that some people were "very unhappy" with the government's unwillingness to respond to protesters' demands, including a full withdrawal of the extradition bill.

"I don't expect conversations to easily untie the knot, stop demonstrations, or provide solutions to problems, but to continue to struggle is not a way forward," she added.

Hong Kong's subway operator said Sunday that for the second day in a row it was closing stops in an area where a police-authorised protest was planned. Chinese state news media had been highly critical of the subway operator, the MTR Corp, after special service trains were used to disperse protesters from a station in the satellite town of Yuen Long on Wednesday.

That special train service helped prevent a clash on Wednesday, but the subway operator was denounced by The People's Daily, the official newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party, as "working hand in glove with rioters".

The MTR Corp said Sunday that it was closing three stations served by two lines in the Tsuen Wan area because of the protests, after closing four stations in the Kwun Tong area Saturday. The closings were criticised not just for preventing participation in authorised protests, but also for inconveniencing other rail users. Graffiti in the Choi Hung station called the MTR "party rail".

Adi Lau, the MTR operations director, said in a message posted Saturday on Facebook that the violence and vandalism in MTR stations in recent months had been "the biggest challenge that MTR had faced in four decades".

He said the decision to close stations was done in conjunction with the police force and other government departments, and was made out of safety considerations, including concerns from employees who felt threatened.

The MTR also obtained a court injunction Friday against anyone interfering with train operations, damaging property or causing disturbances. Two weeks ago, the airport authority also obtained an interim injunction to restrict access after protests led to cancelled flights, chaos and violence in the airport.