Tear gas and water cannon as Hong Kong crowds defy rally ban

Hong Kong police fired water cannon and tear gas Sunday as crowds held an illegal march, with hardcore protesters throwing petrol bombs and trashing businesses to cap a week of anger after recent attacks on pro-democracy demonstrators.

Authorities had forbidden the rally in Tsim Sha Tsui, a densely-packed shopping district filled with luxury boutiques and hotels, citing public safety and previous violence from hardcore protesters.

But tens of thousands nevertheless joined the unsanctioned demo, showing the movement can still keep pressure on the city's pro-Beijing leaders after nearly five months of protests and political unrest.

In a familiar pattern, the huge rally began peacefully.

But it soon descended into chaos as smaller groups of protesters hurled petrol bombs at police, subway entrances and at Chinese mainland bank branches, and vandalised multiple shops.

Police responded with volleys of tear gas and rubber bullets, and baton charges.

Throughout the afternoon, a water cannon truck chased protesters down Nathan Road, one of the city's busiest shopping thoroughfares, leaving it streaked with blue dye.

The dye in the water, used to identify protesters, also contains a painful pepper solution.

The entrance to the city's largest mosque was bathed in blue when the water cannon blasted a handful of people outside the building. Police said hitting the mosque was an accident.

As the protesters fled, frontliners stayed behind to slow the advance of riot police, setting fire to makeshift barricades. Clashes went on deep into the night.

A Xiaomi and a Best Mart store -- both mainland Chinese businesses -- were set alight.

- Activists attacked -

Tensions were running high after the leader of the group organising the weekend rally, Jimmy Sham, was hospitalised after being attacked by unknown assailants wielding hammers earlier in the week.

Then late Saturday, a man handing out pro-democracy flyers was stabbed in the neck and stomach, reportedly by an assailant who shouted pro-Beijing slogans.

Many on Sunday's march said they wanted to show they were unbowed by the attacks and moves by authorities to ban public gatherings.

"The more they suppress, the more we resist," a 69-year-old demonstrator, who gave her surname as Yeung, told AFP. "Can police arrest us all, tens of thousands of people?"

Philip Tsoi, a self-described frontline protester, said they needed to keep getting numbers out even though many hardcore activists like him had been "arrested or wounded" in recent weeks.

"What I want is a truly democratic government whose leader is elected by Hong Kong people instead of selected by a Communist regime," he told AFP.

Vigilante violence has mounted on both sides of the ideological divide.

In recent weeks pro-democracy supporters have badly beaten people who vocally disagree with them -- although those fights tend to be spontaneous outbursts of mob anger during protests.

In contrast, pro-democracy figures have been attacked in a noticeably more targeted way, with at least eight prominent government critics, including politicians, beaten by unknown assailants since mid-August.

Protesters have labelled the attacks "white terror" and accused the city's shadowy organised crime groups of forming an alliance with Beijing supporters.

Beijing has denounced the protests as a foreign-backed plot and condemned attacks on those voicing support for China.

But it has remained largely silent on the attacks carried out against pro-democracy figures.

- Months of unrest -

Hong Kong has now been battered by 20 weeks of protests and with no political solution in sight, clashes have intensified each month.

Hardliners have embraced widespread vandalism, while riot police are quick to respond with tear gas, rubber bullets and, more recently, live rounds.

The rallies were triggered by a now-abandoned plan to allow extraditions to the authoritarian mainland, but have morphed into wider calls for democracy and police accountability.

Protesters are demanding an independent inquiry into the police, an amnesty for those arrested and fully free elections, all of which have been rejected by Beijing and Hong Kong's unelected leader Carrie Lam.

Earlier this month, Lam invoked a colonial-era emergency law to ban face masks.

The decision set off a new wave of protests and vandalism that shut down much of the city's transport network.

In the last fortnight, the clashes have become less intense, with the city's subway closing each night at 10:00 pm.

But protests have continued, with many defying the mask ban during "flashmob" rallies.

Separately, Chinese state television CCTV claimed that "sooner or later," NBA Commissioner Adam Silver will be punished for refusing to apologise for an earlier tweet by Daryl Morey of the Houston Rockets supporting the Hong Kong demonstrators.

CCTV accused Silver of "inventing lies to dirty China," and said that by defending Morey he had "crossed the bottom line by showing a lack of respect to Chinese."

The backlash against Morey's comments has cast a cloud over the NBA's lucrative broadcasting, merchandising and sponsorship interests in China, where it has legions of fans.