Hong Kong police fired water cannon towards protesters for the first time on Sunday in a significant escalation of clashes that have rocked the city for the past three months.
The financial hub has been gripped by street demonstrations that were initially against a proposed extradition bill to China, but have spun out into a wider pro-democracy movement targeting the pro-Beijing government.
As thousands of people who had gathered at a sports stadium marched in the pouring rain to the district of Tsuen Wan, a group of hardcore protesters erected makeshift roadblocks and dug up bricks from the pavements.
After firing tear gas to disperse the crowds, police drove water cannon vehicles into the streets, having earlier warned protesters they would deploy the jets if they did not leave.
Police had previously said the vehicles, complete with real-time surveillance cameras and multiple spray nozzles, would only be used in the event of a “large-scale public disturbance”.
Throughout the protests, Beijing has used a mix of intimidation, propaganda and economic muscle to constrict the protests in a strategy dubbed “white terror” by the movement.
The MTR — the city’s metro — is the latest Hong Kong business to face public censure, after appearing to bend to Chinese state-media attacks accusing the transport system of being an “exclusive” service to ferry protesters to rallies.
On Sunday the MTR shut stations near the main demonstration area in Tsuen Wan, in the second day of station closures in a row.
‘Enemies of Hong Kong’
A second rally of a few hundred, some of them family members of police, criticised the government for leaving officers to handle the brunt of the crisis, while also calling for an independent investigation into the police handling of the protests.
“I believe within these two months, police have got enough opprobrium,” said a woman who asked not to be named and said she was a police officer’s wife.
“I really want you to know even if the whole world spits on you, we as family members will not. Remember, your job is to serve Hong Kong residents, not be the enemies of Hong Kong.”
The city’s officers are often the focus of protesters’ anger because of their perceived heavy handling of the rallies.
Ten people were left in hospital after Saturday’s clashes — two in a serious condition — staff said, without detailing if they were police or protesters.
On Saturday police baton-charged protesters and fired tear gas, while demonstrators threw rocks and bottles later into the night in a working-class neighbourhood.
Protesters say Hong Kong’s unique freedoms are in jeopardy as Beijing tightens its political chokehold on the semi-autonomous city.
The city had appeared to have pulled back from a sharp nosedive into violence, with the last serious confrontation taking place more than a week ago, shortly after protests paralysed the airport.