HONG KONG, (AFP): Anger soared in Hong Kong on Monday over a vicious assault on pro-democracy protesters by suspected triad gangsters that left dozens wounded, a dramatic escalation of the political turmoil plaguing the Chinese city.
The financial hub’s roiling unrest took a dark turn late Sunday when gangs of men — most wearing white T-shirts and carrying bats, sticks and metal poles — set upon anti-government demonstrators returning from another huge march earlier that day.
Footage broadcast live on Facebook showed people screaming as the men beat multiple protesters and journalists in Yuen Long station and inside subway trains, leaving pools of blood on the floor.
Hospital authorities said 45 people were wounded in the attack, with one man in critical condition and five others seriously injured.
Critics accused the city’s embattled police force of taking more than an hour to reach the site and failing to arrest the armed assailants who stayed in the streets around the station into Monday morning.
Some men in white shirts were later filmed leaving the scene in cars with Chinese mainland number plates.
– ‘Shame on the government’ –
Lam Cheuk-ting, a pro-democracy lawmaker, was one of those wounded in the melee, receiving cuts to his face and arms.
He criticised police for their response and accused “triad members” of being behind the attacks.
“Their very barbaric and violent acts have already completely violated the bottom line of Hong Kong’s civilised society,” he told reporters.
Furious fellow pro-democracy lawmakers held a press conference on Monday where they accused the city’s pro-Beijing leaders of ignoring the attacks.
“This is triad gangs beating up Hong Kong people,” fumed legislator Alvin Yeung. “Yet you pretend nothing had happened?”
City police chief Stephen Lo defended his force, saying his officers were busy dealing with violent anti-government protests elsewhere.
“Definitely our manpower is stretched,” he told reporters, describing any suggestion police colluded with triads as a “smear.”
His officers would pursue the attackers, the chief added.
At a briefing around midnight Monday in Hong Kong, police said a total of six men had been arrested including some with alleged triad backgrounds.
The clashes have ratcheted up concern that the city’s feared triad gangs are wading into the political conflict.
Yuen Long lies in the New Territories near the Chinese border where the criminal gangs and staunchly pro-Beijing rural committees remain influential.
Similar assaults by pro-government vigilantes against demonstrators during the 2014 “Umbrella Movement” protests were blamed on triads.
On Monday afternoon, masked protesters trashed the office of staunch pro-Beijing lawmaker Junius Ho, who was filmed shaking hands with white-shirted men in Yuen Long shortly before Sunday’s violence.
– China office targeted –
Hong Kong has been plunged into its worst crisis in recent history by weeks of marches and sporadic violent confrontations between police and pockets of hardcore protesters.
Beijing’s authority in the city faces its most serious challenge since Hong Kong was handed back to China in 1997, and earlier this month protesters trashed Hong Kong’s parliament.
The initial protests were sparked by a now-suspended bill that would have allowed extraditions to mainland China, but they have since evolved into a wider movement calling for democratic reforms, universal suffrage and a halt to sliding freedoms in the semi-autonomous territory.
On Monday the foreign minister of self-ruled Taiwan, which Beijing sees as its own territory, supported the protesters’ calls.
“The way forward is genuine democratic elections, not violence in the streets & MTR stations,” Joseph Wu said on Twitter.
As the mob rampaged in Yuen Long police simultaneously battled hardcore pro-democracy protesters in the middle of the city’s commercial district.
Riot officers fired tear gas and rubber bullets at protesters, hours after China’s Hong Kong Liaison Office was daubed with eggs and graffiti in a vivid rebuke to Beijing’s rule.
“Actions by some radical demonstrators have affected the bottom line of the ‘one country, two systems’ principle, and that is absolutely intolerable,” foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said in Beijing.
Geng said Beijing opposes all acts of violence and “firmly” supports the use of “all necessary measures to safeguard central government agencies in Hong Kong”.
Hong Kong’s leader Carrie Lam condemned both the targeting of the Liaison Office and the pro-government mobsters. She said the scenes “outraged the whole city”.
“We absolutely do not condone those sort of violent acts,” she told reporters.
Earlier on Sunday, another peaceful anti-government march had made its way through the city — the seventh weekend in a row that residents had come out en masse.
Yet the demonstrations have done little to persuade Lam — or Beijing — to change tack on the financial hub’s future.
The “one country, two systems” promised by China under the handover deal allowed Hong Kong to keep liberties including its independent judiciary and freedom of speech.
But many say those provisions are already being curtailed.
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