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Hong Kong police fire tear gas hours after government imposes emergency laws

Riot police charge at protesters at Causeway Bay area in Hong Kong on October 4, 2019, as people hit the streets after the government announced a ban on facemasks.

[HONG KONG] Hong Kong police fired tear gas to disperse protesters in the New Territories district of Sha Tin on Friday, hours after the government imposed emergency laws designed to quell violent unrest that has roiled the city for four months.

Hong Kong's embattled leader Carrie Lam invoked colonial-era emergency powers for the first time in more than 50 years in a dramatic move that enraged protesters who took to the streets of the Chinese-ruled city within hours.

Masked demonstrators built barricades in the heart of Hong Kong's commercial district and began holding flash-mob rallies in multiple districts.

The largest impromptu rally on Friday broke out in Central, where many blue-chip international firms are based, as thousands of protesters blocked roads, erected barricades and built street fires.

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At one point a banner celebrating 70 years of Chinese Communist Party rule was torn down and torched.

Online forums used by protesters also filled with anger and vows to hit the streets over the upcoming three-day weekend.

"Youngsters are risking their lives, they don't mind being jailed for 10 years, so wearing masks is not a problem," a 34-year-old office worker wearing a surgical mask, who gave her first name as Mary, told AFP.

The ban on face masks, which will take effect at 12.01 am Saturday, will be punishable by up to one year in jail and a fine. It will apply to public gatherings of more than few dozen people. But enforcing the ban could prove difficult given their near ubiquity in the movement.

Many protesters wear gas masks and respirators, as do first-aid responders and journalists, to protect themselves from tear gas. Some wear them to protect their identity, fearful they will be captured in photos and by surveillance equipment, then targeted for retaliation.

But the face masks, and the anonymity they provide, have given cover to more violent protesters, who have beaten police officers and vandalized property. Undercover police officers have also used masks to disguise themselves as protesters and make arrests.