By Poppy McPherson and Kate O’Donnell-Lamb
HONGKONG (Reuters) – Police fired tear gas to disperse thousands of anti-government protesters in Hong Kong on Sunday, ending a rare lull in violence, as residents took to the streets chanting “revolution of our time” and “liberate Hong Kong”.
The protest in the busy shopping district of Tsim Sha Tsui followed a march by hundreds of people to the U.S. consulate to show “gratitude” for U.S. support for the demonstrations that have agitated the Chinese-ruled city for six months.
Shops and businesses in the area closed early as police sprayed volleys of tear gas at protesters, including some elderly residents and others with their pets, as they marched past the city’s Kowloon waterfront, home to luxury hotels and shopping malls.
Police made several arrests as the tear gas sent hundreds fleeing towards the harbour.
Hong Kong, a major financial hub, had enjoyed relative calm for the past week since local elections last Sunday delivered an overwhelming victory to pro-democracy candidates.
Activists pledged, however, to maintain the momentum of the anti-government movement. Protests in the former British colony since June have at times forced the closure of government offices, businesses, schools and even the international airport.
Waving posters that read “Never forget why you started” and black flags with the logo “Revolution now”, protesters occupied several main roads on Sunday, with young residents and families with children filling the nearby streets.
“We had demonstrations, peaceful protests, lobbying inside the council, a lot of things we have done but they all failed,” said Felix, a 25-year-old university graduate.
“There are still five demands,” he said, referring to protesters’ calls that include an independent inquiry into police behaviour and the implementation of universal suffrage.
Some black-clad protesters wearing gas masks built barricades and blocked roads near luxury stores, including Armani, while others headed towards Hung Hom, a district near the ruined campus of Hong Kong Polytechnic University.
The campus turned into a battleground in mid-November when protesters barricaded themselves in and faced off riot police in violent clashes of petrol bombs, water cannon and tear gas.
About 1,100 people were arrested last week, some while trying to escape.
Police withdrew from the university on Friday after collecting evidence and removing dangerous items including thousands of petrol bombs, arrows and chemicals that had been strewn around the site.
By Sunday night, the crowds of protesters had diminished and some roads reopened to traffic. Police said hundreds of “rioters” had hurled smoke bombs, “stirring up public fear and causing chaos” which forced them to fire tear gas.
Sunday’s marches, which were permitted by authorities, came as a top Hong Kong official said the government was looking into setting up an independent committee to review the handling of the crisis, in which demonstrations have become increasingly violent.
The protesters are angry at what they see as Chinese meddling in the freedoms promised to the former British colony when it returned to Chinese rule in 1997.
China denies interfering, says it is committed to the “one country, two systems” formula put in place at that time and has blamed foreign forces for fomenting unrest.
Earlier on Sunday, hundreds of protesters waved American flags, with some donning Donald Trump logo hats and t-shirts, as they unfurled a banner depicting the U.S. president standing astride a tank with a U.S. flag behind him.
Trump this week signed into law congressional legislation supporting protesters, despite angry objections from Beijing.
In the morning, hundreds of protesters marched in protest against police use of tear gas.
Carrying yellow balloons and waving banners that read “No tear gas, save our children”, the protesters streamed through the city’s central business district towards government headquarters on the main Hong Kong island.
“We want the police to stop using tear gas,” said a woman surnamed Wong, who marched with her husband and 5-year-old son.
Police have fired around 10,000 rounds of tear gas since June, the city’s secretary for security, John Lee, said this week.
On Saturday, secondary school students and retirees joined forces to protest against what they called police brutality and unlawful arrests.
Further protests are planned through the week. A big test of support for the anti-government campaign is expected on Dec. 8 in a rally planned by Civil Human Rights Front, the group that organised million-strong marches in June.
(Reporting by Kate O’Donnell-Lamb, David Dolan, Sarah Wu, Poppy McPherson, Twinnie Siu, Felix Tam and Martin Pollard in Hong Kong and the Beijing newsroom; Writing by Farah Master; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan, Anne Marie Roantree, Tom Hogue and Frances Kerry)