Tensions simmer between Hong Kong riot police, protesters after day of violence
HONG KONG (Reuters) - Hong Kong riot police and protesters braced early on Thursday for possible further clashes across the city's financial district after a day of violence over an extradition bill that would allow people to be sent to mainland China for trial.
An uneasy calm had settled over the city after police fired rubber bullets, tear gas and pepper spray in a series of skirmishes to clear demonstrators from the city's legislature.
It marked some of the worst violence to rock the financial hub since Britain handed it back to Chinese rule in 1997 with a guarantee of extensive autonomy and freedoms, including a separate legal system and freedom of speech.
The extradition bill has sparked unusually wide concerns, both locally and internationally, that it risks further encroachment from Chinese officials and threatens the rule of law that underpins its international financial status.
Hundreds of riot police could be seen resting and re-grouping overnight while gaggles of protesters obtained fresh supplies of water, goggles and helmets, Reuters witnesses reported.
Some could be seen strapping exposed arms and legs with cling wrap to guard against the impact of tear gas as many braced for more police charges before dawn.
As of 10pm on Wednesday evening, 72 people had been hospitalized, including two classed as serious, according to the Hong Kong Hospital Authority.
Several thousand demonstrators remained near the legislature in the Admiralty district, while thousands more had retreated to the Central business district, overlooked by the towers of some of Asia's biggest firms and hotel chains, including HSBC and AIA and the Mandarin Oriental.
Bemused tourists could be seen scratching their heads at the sight of abandoned luxury cars near the Mandarin. Barricades had been placed over the doors of the venerable Hong Kong Club, one of the city's oldest social institutions.
It marked the third night of violence since a protest on Sunday drew what organizers said was more than a million people in the biggest street demonstration since the 1997 handover.
Financial markets were hit during the clashes. The benchmark Hang Seng Index closed 1.7% lower on Wednesday, having lost as much as 2% in the afternoon, while Chinese companies in Hong Kong ended down 1.2%.
(For a live blog of protests coverage, click https://reut.rs/2Iajtez)
Hong Kong's China-backed Chief Executive Carrie Lam condemned the violence late on Wednesday and urged a swift restoration of order.
While acknowledging the controversy, Lam has refused to postpone or withdraw the bill, which she and her officials insist is needed to plug "loopholes" allowing the city to be a haven for criminals wanted on the mainland.
Lam has said the courts would provide human rights safeguards in vetting case-by-case extraditions to mainland China. Opponents, including leading lawyers, warn that China's courts and security forces cannot be trusted to deliver fair and open justice, or even routine access to lawyers.
U.S. President Donald Trump, who is locked in a trade war with China, said the demonstrations in Hong Kong were massive but added that he expected the issue to be resolved.
"I understand the reason for the demonstration but I'm sure they will be able to work it out. I hope they're going to be able to work it out with China," Trump told reporters on Wednesday at the White House.
British Prime Minister Theresa May said extradition rules in Hong Kong had to respect the rights and freedoms set out in the 1984 Sino-British agreement on Hong Kong's future.
"It is vital that those extradition arrangements in Hong Kong are in line with the rights and freedoms that were set down in the Sino-British joint declaration," May told parliament.
(Reporting By James Pomfret, Anne Marie Roantree and Jessie Pang; Additional reporting by Roberta Rampton in Washington; Writing by Greg Torode; Editing by Gareth Jones)
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