A week of calm in Hong Kong has erupted into one of the worst nights of violence as police drew guns and water cannon for the first time.
Peaceful protests involving tens of thousands of people escalated into fierce clashes on Sunday night, with reports police fired their first live shot and pointed guns at protesters.
The intensifying confrontation came after protesters earlier sought to tear down “smart poles” in the Chinese territory over fears of face recognition technology.
The night of violence follows 12 weeks of ongoing rallies against the Hong Kong government which was initially sparked by an extradition bill.
Tear gas was used again for the first time in a week to disperse the angry crowd whose weapons included bricks, petrol bombs and metal poles.
The main showdown on Sunday evening took place in the outlying Tsuen Wan district following a protest march that ended in a nearby park.
While a large crowd rallied in the park, a breakaway group of hardline protesters clad in black took over a main street, strewing bamboo poles on the pavement, and lining up orange and white traffic barriers and cones to obstruct police.
After hoisting warning flags, police used tear gas to try to disperse the crowd.
Protesters responded by throwing bricks and petrol bombs towards the police and eventually decided to abandon their position.
Two water cannon trucks and a large group of police vehicles with flashing lights joined riot police on foot as they advanced up the street and met little resistance.
Television footage showed a water cannon being fired once, but perhaps more as a test, as it did not appear to reach the retreating protesters.
Officers pulled their guns after protesters chased them down a street with sticks and rods, calling them “gangsters”.
Public broadcaster RTHK said one of its reporters saw a uniformed officer fire a shot into the sky.
Some protesters said they were resorting to violence because the government had not responded to their peaceful demonstrations.
“The escalation you’re seeing now is just a product of our government’s indifference toward the people of Hong Kong,” said Rory Wong, who was at the clash after the march.
One resident, Dong Wong, complained about the tear gas.
“I live on the 15th floor and I can even smell it at home,” he said.
“I have four dogs, sneezing, sneezing all day. … The protesters didn’t do anything, they just blocked the road to protect themselves.”
Another Hong Kong resident, ‘M. Sung, a 53-year-old software engineer in a black mask emblematic of the many older, middle-class citizens at the march, said he had been at almost every protest and would keep coming.
“We know this is the last chance to fight for ‘one country, two systems’, otherwise the Chinese Communist Party will penetrate our home city and control everything,” he said.
“If we keep a strong mind, we can sustain this movement for justice and democracy. It won’t die,” Sung said.
Hong Kong police fire gunshot and deploy water cannon during protests for the first time since demonstrations broke out in June
— BBC News (World) (@BBCWorld) August 25, 2019
Protesters say they are fighting the erosion of the “one country, two systems” arrangement under which the former British colony returned to China in 1997 with the promise of continued freedoms not enjoyed on the mainland.
The protests, which started over a now-suspended extradition bill and evolved into demands for greater democracy, have rocked Hong Kong for three months and plunged the city into its biggest political crisis since the handover.
They also pose a direct challenge for Communist Party leaders in Beijing, who are eager to quell the unrest ahead of the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China on October 1.
Beijing has sent a clear warning that forceful intervention is possible, with paramilitary forces holding drills just over the border.