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Hong Kong's airport reopens after protests, more than 200 flights cancelled

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Early Tuesday, passengers with luggage were being checked in at the departures hall and information boards showed several flights were already boarding or about to depart.

[HONG KONG] Flights resumed Tuesday at the Hong Kong airport a day after a massive pro-democracy rally there forced the shutdown of the busy international transport hub.

But the airport's administrator warned that flight movements would still be affected, after China said protests that have swept the city over the past two months had begun to show "sprouts of terrorism".

Early Tuesday, passengers with luggage were being checked in at the departures hall and information boards showed several flights were already boarding or about to depart.

Despite the airport reopening, Hong Kong flag carrier Cathay Pacific said it had cancelled over 200 flights to and out of the airport on Tuesday, according to its website.

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The airport, one of the world's busiest, blamed demonstrators for halting flights on Monday, but the exact trigger for the closure was not clear as protesters occupying the arrivals hall for the past five days have been peaceful.

Most protesters had left the airport shortly after midnight, with about 50 protesters still there on Tuesday morning.

"Hong Kong International Airport will implement flight rescheduling today with flight movements expected to be affected," said a notice published on the Hong Kong International Airport's official mobile app on Tuesday morning.

Cathay Pacific said it would only operate a limited number of flights for connecting passengers. Airport flight boards showed the likes of Emirates Airline and Virgin Australia had flights scheduled to depart on Tuesday.

China on Monday said protests in the Asian financial hub, which started as opposition to a now suspended extradition bill to mainland China but expanded into wider calls for democracy, had reached a "critical juncture".

"Protesters have been frequently using extremely dangerous tools to attack the police in recent days, constituting serious crimes with sprouts of terrorism emerging," said Hong Kong and Macau Affairs office spokesman Yang Guang in Beijing.

Some Hong Kong legal experts say the official description of terrorism could lead to the use of anti-terror laws.

Protesters say police have used excessive force, firing tear gas and bean bag pellets at close range, and are calling for an independent inquiry into the crisis.

The increasingly violent demonstrations have plunged the Chinese-ruled territory into its most serious crisis in decades, presenting Chinese leader Xi Jinping with one of his biggest challenges since he came to power in 2012.

Demonstrators say they are fighting the erosion of the "one country, two systems" arrangement enshrining some autonomy for Hong Kong when China took it back from Britain in 1997.

Hong Kong is the 8th busiest by passenger traffic, handling 73 million passengers a year. The airport has been filled with anti-government protesters for four days.

A Reuters reporter saw more than 100 travellers queuing up at Cathay's ticketing counter early on Tuesday.

"The way to handle last night was chaotic," said Kate Flannery from Australia, who was travelling to Paris. "The airport authority didn't deal with the situation. I felt like I was walking around and nobody gave us information."

A Cathay customer officer at the airport, who declined to provide his name, said that nearly all of the airline's flights were full.

"It is possible that the airport authority will cancel more flights as they need to control the air traffic movements at the Hong Kong International Airport," he said. 

'AN EYE FOR AN EYE'

On Tuesday morning, only a handful of protesters remained in the airport. But fears of a police operation to clear the facility overnight proved unfounded, with demonstrators simply leaving by themselves.

Many of the posters and artwork they had hung throughout the facility during the hours-long rally had been taken down, but graffiti - some reading "an eye for an eye" - could still be seen in several places.

The protesters adopted the slogan after a woman suffered a serious facial injury that reportedly caused her to lose the vision in one eye at a demonstration that turned violent on Sunday night.

The demonstrators accuse police of causing the injury by firing a bean-bag round, and cite the case as evidence of what they say has been an excessive and disproportionate response by police to their protests.

The activists have called on their supporters to return to the airport later on Tuesday, though it was unclear whether authorities would allow that to happen.

The protests that began in opposition to a bill allowing extradition to the mainland has morphed into a broader bid to reverse a slide of freedoms in the southern Chinese city.

But the city's Beijing-backed leader has ruled out meeting the protesters' demands, which include the right to choose their next leader and an investigation into alleged police brutality.

The demonstrations have become increasingly violent, with police using tear gas and rubber bullets to push back protesters who have sometimes hurled bricks and bottles.

"It is becoming more and more dangerous, but if we don't still come out at this point, our future will become more frightening, and we will lose our freedoms," a 22-year-old protester at the airport told AFP on Monday.

REUTERS, AFP