By Marius Zaharia and Jessie Pang
HONGKONG (Reuters) – Hong Kong police fired rubber bullets and tear gas on Friday to clear renewed protests outside a subway station on the densely populated Kowloon peninsula, the latest clashes in 14 weeks of sometimes violent anti-government unrest.
Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam announced concessions this week to try to end the protests, including formally scrapping a hugely unpopular extradition bill, but many said they were too little, too late.
Hundreds of demonstrators, many of them masked and dressed in black, took cover from the tear gas behind umbrellas and barricades made from street fencing. Some had broken through a metal grill to enter the station where they pulled down signs, broke turnstiles and daubed graffiti on the walls.
“We’re angry at the police and angry at the government,” said Justin, 23, dressed in black and wearing a hoodie. “Police was very brutal with us at this station on Aug. 31. We cannot let them get away with it.”
Protesters gathered outside Prince Edward station in Mong Kok, one of the world’s most densely populated regions, 3 km (two miles) from the harbourside hotel and shopping district of Tsim Sha Tsui. On the night of Aug. 31, police stormed trains at the station, using batons against passengers cowering on the floor, to make arrests.
On Friday, the protesters withdrew when police fired rubber bullets, but regrouped in smaller pockets to light fires in the street from wooden pallets, cardboard boxes and other debris. Firemen doused the flames as onlookers casually milled around, taking pictures.
Some protesters smashed up an elevator and entrance at the nearby Yau Ma Tei MTR station and traffic lights outside.
There was no immediate official word on arrests or injuries, though some people were being treated at roadsides for minor wounds. Cable News said one person had been attacked with a knife.
Mong Kok, Prince Edward and Yau Ma Tei stations were closed.
Lam’s measures to try to restore order in the Chinese-ruled city included the formal withdrawal of the bill that triggered the demonstrations. The law would have allowed extraditions to mainland China, despite the city having an independent judiciary dating back to British colonial rule.
But the demonstrations, which began in June, had long since broadened into calls for more democracy and many protesters have pledged to fight on, calling Lam’s concessions too little, too late.
“No China” was daubed over walls along the key north-south artery of Nathan Road.
“The four actions are aimed at putting one step forward in helping Hong Kong to get out of the dilemma,” Lam told reporters during a trip to China’s southern region of Guangxi. “We can’t stop the violence immediately.”
Apart from withdrawing the bill, she announced three other measures to help ease the crisis, including a dialogue with the people.
Demonstrations have at times paralysed parts of the city, a major Asian financial hub, amid running street battles between protesters and police who have responded with tear gas, pepper spray and water cannons. Violent arrests of protesters, many in metro stations, have drawn international attention.
The crowds were expected to swell into the night, as the city braces for weekend demonstrations aiming to disrupt transport links to the airport.
The airport announced that only passengers with tickets would be allowed to use the Airport Express train service on Saturday, boarding in downtown Hong Kong. The train would not stop en route, on the Kowloon peninsula. Bus services could also be hit, it said.
The measures are aimed at avoiding the chaos of last weekend, when protesters blocked airport approach roads, threw debris on the train track and trashed the MTR subway station in the nearby new town of Tung Chung in running clashes with police.
Global credit rating agency Fitch Ratings downgraded Hong Kong’s long-term foreign currency issuer default rating on Friday to “AA” from “AA+”.
Fitch said it expects public discontent will likely persist despite the concessions to certain protester demands.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel raised the issue of Hong Kong with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang in Beijing, saying a peaceful solution was needed.
“I stressed that the rights and freedoms for (Hong Kong) citizens have to be granted,” Merkel said.
‘RETURN TO ORDER’
Li told a news conference with Merkel “the Chinese government unswervingly safeguards ‘one country, two systems’ and ‘Hong Kong people govern Hong Kong people’”.
Beijing supported the territory’s government “to end the violence and chaos in accordance with the law, to return to order, which is to safeguard Hong Kong’s long-term prosperity and stability”, Li added.
Hong Kong returned to China in 1997 under the “one country, two systems” formula that guarantees freedoms not enjoyed on the mainland. Many Hong Kong residents fear Beijing is eroding that autonomy.
China denies the accusation of meddling and says Hong Kong is its internal affair. It has denounced the protests, warning of the damage to the economy and the possible use of force to quell the unrest.
In addition to calling for a withdrawal of the extradition bill and the release of those arrested for violence, protesters want an independent inquiry into perceived police brutality, retraction of the word “riot” to describe rallies and the right for Hong Kong people to choose their own leaders.
The protests have presented Chinese President Xi Jinping with his greatest popular challenge since he came to power in 2012.
(Additional reporting by Felix Tam, Jessie Pang, Twinnie Siu, Donny Kwok, Noah Sin, Kai Pfaffenbach, Aleksander Solum and Joe Brock; Andreas Rinke in Beijing; Writing by Anne Marie Roantree and Nick Macfie; Editing by Robert Birsel and Frances Kerry)