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Hong Kong protests resume after Carrie Lam offers olive branch
[HONG KONG] Tear gas, pepper spray and fire returned to the streets of Hong Kong on Friday, as police officers clashed with masked pro-democracy protesters in the first notable display of unrest since Hong Kong's top leader announced on Wednesday that she would withdraw a deeply unpopular extradition bill.
It was an early sign that the protests that have convulsed this city for three months are likely to continue. More protest actions are planned for this weekend, including an attempt to disrupt access to the airport on Saturday and a march on Sunday to the United States consulate to urge Congress to pass a bipartisan proposal to penalise officials who suppress freedoms in Hong Kong.
The protests were sparked in June by the contentious extradition bill, which would have exposed Hong Kongers to the mainland's opaque judiciary, but its withdrawal now seemed unlikely to fully placate the movement, which has since broadened far beyond that single issue to include calls for fundamental political reforms and an independent inquiry into police behaviour. Other demands include amnesty for arrested protesters and the retraction of the label of some protesters as "rioters".
On Friday evening, hundreds of black-clad protesters gathered in the Mong Kok neighborhood and some aimed laser pointers at police officers and set fires in the streets. Riot police sought to disperse the crowds by firing several rounds of tear gas, pepper spray and what appeared to be rubber bullets. Demonstrators, who have accused the company that manages Hong Kong's subway system of abetting police violence, also vandalised several metro stations.
Elsewhere in the city, hundreds of protesters gathered in a mostly peaceful rally in the city's central business district chanting slogans like "Reclaim Hong Kong, revolution of our times!" and "Five demands, not one less!"
Public anger toward the police in particular has intensified in recent weeks after officers failed to stop a mob attack on protesters and bystanders at a train station. Police across the city are now routinely met with calls of "mafia" and "corrupt cops".
On Friday, protesters gathered at Prince Edward station in Mong Kok demanding to see security footage from last weekend, when riot officers had charged into a waiting train car, beat four people with batons and doused them in pepper spray.
Human rights groups have criticised the officers' actions, saying that the people were not offering resistance.
When demonstrators showed up at Prince Edward Station on Friday evening, authorities stopped train service, prompting protesters to break into the station. The damage they inflicted there and at Mong Kok and Yau Ma Tei stations led authorities to close the three subways stops by late Friday evening.
The protests on Friday were an early test of public sentiment since Carrie Lam announced on Wednesday her four-point plan to ease the tensions that have plunged this former British colony into its worst crisis since it returned to Chinese rule in 1997. The protests have badly battered Hong Kong's economy, which suffered another blow on Friday when Fitch Ratings downgraded its credit rating for the territory.
In subsequent remarks on Thursday, Mrs Lam urged peaceful demonstrators not to legitimise "the really violent protesters", in what some saw as an attempt to sow divisions in the movement.
But many moderate protesters have vowed to maintain a united front, saying that they would only be satisfied once all of the demonstrators' demands were met.
On Friday evening in Chater Garden, about 1,000 peaceful protesters gathered at a rally where a large statue of a female protester had been erected in the square. The statue was clad in what has become the standard demonstration uniform — hard hat, goggles, gas mask, backpack and umbrella.
Charmaine Cheung, 30, who was among the moderate protesters gathered at the rally in Chater Garden, said the movement's aims have expanded well beyond the extradition bill. "The problems that have since arisen are much more serious than whether the bill is withdrawn or not," said Ms Cheung, a nurse.