Clashes broke out in Hong Kong on Wednesday afternoon between protesters and police, with one policeman holding up a red banner which warns: “Stop charging or we use force.”
Tensions have been rising throughout the day with protesters refusing to disperse and setting up barriers which they have pushing at police lines. After being sprayed with tear gas and pepper-spray, protesters retreated, only to make another push forward. Police had started to wield batons and protester’s umbrellas have been sent flying.
Local media reported that Police Commissioner Stephen Lo Wai-chung had declared the clashes a riot. The declaration carries serious implications for anyone arrested. Rioting is punishable by 10 years in prison.
“It’s a riot now,” Lo said. “We had no choice but to use weapons to stop these rioters from barging at our defense lines.
“We condemn such irresponsible behavior. There’s no need to hurt innocent people to express your opinions. We urge people not to do anything they will regret for the rest of their lives.”
The clashes broke out shortly after 3:00 pm local time – the deadline protesters had given for the government to abandon a controversial bill that would allow extraditions to China.
Protesters using umbrellas as shields were seen trying to get closer to riot police protecting the Legislative Council building, with projectiles thrown at officers who responded with pepper spray and baton charges, AFP reported.
Earlier on Wednesday, tens of thousands of protesters opposed to the Hong Kong government’s plans to amend the extradition laws flooded the streets in Admiralty, paralyzing traffic hours ahead of the debate at the Legislative Council.
The Legislative Council announced it was rescheduling the council meeting just before the originally scheduled time of 11 am, adding that the new meeting time will be determined by LegCo president Andrew Leung, according to a government release.
By late morning, with crowds continuing to swell, officials in Legco said they would delay the second reading of the bill “to a later date.”
“The only responsible thing to do now is for Carrie Lam to withdraw the evil bill, or at least to shelve it in order to solve the crisis,” pro-democracy lawmaker Fernando Cheung told AFP.
“Because the situation is very tense, if she forces it through and asks the police to use violence, I’m afraid Hong Kong’s children will be hurt, will bleed.”
At 8 am, a group of masked protesters ran onto Lung Wo Road and intercepted vehicles and pulled barricades from the sidewalk to the middle of the road, Apple Daily reported.
Half an hour later, thousands more took over Harcourt Road and moved metal barriers and anything else they could find from a nearby construction site onto the road to create makeshift barricades, but they still let vehicles already on the road proceed.
The entire area was packed with demonstrators, including the footbridge to the Legislative Council complex. LegCo issued an amber alert at midnight which means access was denied to all members of the public.
Thousands of protesters had stayed overnight in the vicinity of the LegCo building and the scene was relatively calm, even though riot police had been deployed to stand by and a large-scale stop and search operation targeting young people had been carried out in Admiralty since Tuesday evening.
So far, there had been no major clashes on Wednesday morning, even though police used pepper spray on protesters at the intersection of Tim Wa Avenue and Harcourt Road at one point, Radio Television Hong Kong reported.
Protesters responded to a call to besiege the LegCo building after the government decided to continue the second reading of the fugitive bill amendments, despite more than one million people taking to the streets to voice their opposition to it on Sunday.
A large number of police officers with shields and batons were standing by, but they did not disperse the crowd or stop the protesters setting up obstacles.
At 10 am, police issued a second warning to protesters, asking them to leave the area immediately or force would be used on them. But the protesters chanted slogans and opened their umbrellas.
Wednesday morning’s scenes were highly reminiscent of the Occupy protests of 2014, when protesters occupied streets in Admiralty, as well as Causeway Bay and Mong Kok, for 79 days.
Meanwhile, in early trading on Wednesday, the Hang Seng Index fell 1.7%.
“Uncertainty on local policies will confuse investors and affect the flows in and out of Hong Kong stocks,” said Ronald Wan, chief executive of Partners Capital International Ltd. “Investors now need to ponder whether or not to pull out of the market given the local events and global factors including the trade war.”