HONG KONG – Hong Kong police fired tear gas early on Tuesday to disperse hundreds of defiant protesters, some of whom had stormed and ransacked the city's Legislature hours earlier on the anniversary of the city's 1997 return to Chinese rule.
Police arrived in a convoy of buses near midnight as about 1,000 protesters, furious at a proposed law that would allow extraditions to China, were gathered around the council building in the former British colony's financial district in a direct challenge to authorities in Beijing.
Earlier, protesters wearing hard hats, masks and black shirts had used a metal trolley, poles and scaffolding to charge again and again at the compound's reinforced glass doors, which eventually gave. Scores of them poured into the building.
Police fired several rounds of tear gas as protesters held up umbrellas to protect themselves, trying to block their advance. Plumes of smoke billowed across major thoroughfares and between some of the world's tallest skyscrapers.
The extraordinary violence marked an escalation in the weekslong movement against the extradition law, which the city's leader, Carrie Lam, had argued was necessary but suspended in mid-June after protest marches that drew hundreds of thousands of people onto the streets.
Lam called a news conference at 4 a.m. to condemn what were some of the most violent protests to rock the city in decades. It was not clear if any arrests were made.
Umbrellas, metal barriers, hard hats, water bottles and other debris lay strewn across major roads near the Legislative Council, known as Legco. Police and work crews removed metal barriers and other blockades from some thoroughfares in a bid to clear them ahead of businesses reopening on Tuesday.
Inside Legco, protesters smashed computers and spray-painted "anti-extradition" and slurs against the police and the government on chamber walls. Other graffiti called for Lam, Hong Kong's chief executive, to step down, while pictures of some lawmakers were defaced.
"HK Is Not China" was painted in black on a white pillar.
The government called for an immediate end to the violence, saying it had stopped work on amendments to the suspended extradition bill and that the legislation would automatically lapse in July next year.
"This kind of violent behavior affects the core value of the rule of law, and I felt angry and upset about this, and need to seriously condemn it," Lam later told the media.
"I believe the citizens feel the same."
Protesters ram Legislature
On Monday – a public holiday – the protesters, some with cling film wrapped around their arms to protect them from pepper spray and tear gas, again paralyzed parts of the Asian financial hub as they occupied roads near the government.
Riot police in helmets and carrying batons earlier fired pepper spray.
Banners hanging over flyovers at the protest site read: "Free Hong Kong."
Lam has stopped short of protesters' demands to scrap the extradition bill, although she has said the suspension would effectively kill the proposal because of the lawmaking schedule.
The Beijing-backed leader is now clinging to her job at a time of an unprecedented backlash against the government that poses the greatest popular challenge to Chinese leader Xi Jinping since he came to power in 2012.
News of the protests in Hong Kong has been heavily censored in the mainland.
"The kind of deafness that I see in the government this time around despite these protests is really worrying. The complete disregard for the will of the people is what alarms me," said Steve, a British lawyer who has worked in Hong Kong for 30 years and declined to give his last name.
"If this bill is not completely scrapped, I will have no choice but to leave my home, Hong Kong."
Opponents of the extradition bill, which would allow people to be sent to mainland China for trial in courts controlled by the Communist Party, fear it is a threat to Hong Kong's much-cherished rule of law.
The Legislative Council Secretariat released a statement cancelling business for Tuesday. The central government offices, which are adjacent to Legco, said they would close on Tuesday "owing to security consideration," while all guided tours to the Legislative Council complex were suspended until further notice.