HONG KONG – China said on Wednesday Hong Kong’s protest movement had reached “near terrorism” and more street clashes followed ugly scenes the previous day when protesters set upon men they suspected of being government sympathizers.
The United States said it was “deeply concerned” at news of Chinese paramilitary police movement near the border, urged Hong Kong’s government to respect freedom of speech, and issued a travel advisory urging caution when visiting the city.
By nightfall, police and protesters were again facing off on the streets, with riot officers shooting tear gas almost immediately as their response to demonstrators toughens.
Ten weeks of increasingly violent confrontation between police and protesters have plunged Hong Kong into its worst crisis since it reverted from British to Chinese rule in 1997.
Flights resumed on Wednesday amid heightened security at Hong Kong airport, one of the world’s busiest. This followed two days of disruptions sparked by protesters swarming the airport, where, late on Tuesday, they detained two men they suspected opposed them.
China’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office in Beijing called the behavior at the airport no different to terrorism and said it must be severely punished.
“We’re deeply sorry about what happened yesterday,” read a banner held up by a group of a few dozen demonstrators in the airport arrivals hall in the morning.
“We were desperate and we made imperfect decisions. Please accept our apologies,” the banner said.
In chaotic scenes that would once have been unthinkable for Hong Kong, a peaceful sit-in at the airport turned violent late on Tuesday as protesters confronted and held a man they believed was an undercover Chinese agent.
Busloads of riot police arrived in response, clashing with furious demonstrators before withdrawing once the man was removed, and leaving the terminal briefly in control of activists who then briefly detained a reporter from China’s Global Times newspaper, a nationalistic tabloid run by the ruling Communist Party’s official People’s Daily.
It was not clear whether the scenes of violence might have eroded the broad support the movement has so far attracted in Hong Kong, a major financial hub. The protests have also hit the city’s faltering economy.
“We promise to reflect and to improve,” protesters said in one message distributed on social media app Telegram.
“Sorry we were too reckless ... we are only afraid of losing your support to the whole movement due to our mistake, and that you give up on fighting.”
There has been little sign of a letup in the protests, which began in opposition to a now-suspended bill that would have allowed the extradition of suspects for trial in mainland China, but have swelled into wider calls for democracy.
Hundreds attended a demonstration in the residential area of Sham Shui Po, where police arrived and quickly used tear gas after protesters pointed lasers at the police station.