HONG KONG - Hopes for a peaceful Christmas were dashed in Hong Kong Tuesday after riot police fired tear gas and protesters set fire at various locations across the city that has been roiled by civil unrest for more than six months.
Large crowds had gathered in several shopping malls and a busy tourist area in response to online calls to voice their discontent with the government and to demand greater democracy.
The anti-government movement in Hong Kong, sparked by a controversial extradition law, has entered the seventh month and shows no signs of abating. Protesters say they will not give up unless the government meets their political demands, which include universal suffrage and an independent investigation into police brutality.
After 9 p.m. local time, police fired several rounds of tear gas in a popular tourist area, Tsim Sha Tsui, to disperse protesters -- including outside the luxury Peninsula Hotel. Hundreds had gathered to disrupt traffic earlier and riot police warned they were taking part in an illegal assembly.
The gas covered a large area, engulfing buses and other traffic in the tourist spot adorned with Christmas illuminations. Families with young children were seen covering their faces as they hurried away. Police ordered people gathered on the scenic harbor front to leave, although many appeared to be just celebrating Christmas. As riot police pushed along the seafront, a young child dressed in a Santa Claus costume looked frightened while clinging to his mother's shoulders.
Scores of black-clad protesters got into a stand-off with police officers near the Peninsula by hiding behind opened umbrellas. Later in the evening, protesters placed large objects including wooden crates and bus signs across a thoroughfare and set them on fire.
Hong Kong police said in a late night statement that protesters threw fuel bombs at the Tsim Sha Tsui Police Station at 11 p.m. local time and warned members of the public to stay away from the area. They said protesters occupied a thoroughfare and set barricades on another street and police used crowd management vehicles to disperse "rioters" -- eyewitnesses said water cannon were used on the crowds. The statement also said police warned the rioters "to stop their illegal acts."
In the busy Mong Kok shopping district, protesters ignited objects at an entrance to the metro station. Other protesters targeted an HSBC bank by smashing its glass panels and setting fire to the front of the building. HSBC had suspended the account of non-profit platform Spark Alliance that raised funds for protesters. Some sprayed-painted the message, "Don't forget Spark Alliance," onto the outer walls.
Hong Kong police last week froze the equivalent of about $9 million held by Spark Alliance and arrested its four members — moves decried by critics as an attempt to clamp down on the city's protest movement and smear its reputation.
HSBC Bank said the activities of Spark Alliance's corporate account did not match the client's stated business purposes. The bank maintained last week that the closure of the group's account was "completely unrelated to the Hong Kong police's arrest of the four individuals" and "unrelated to the current Hong Kong situation."
After clashes broke out Tuesday night, the metro company closed down stations at Mong Kok and Tsim Sha Tsui early, saying the move was necessary to protect the safety of passengers and staff. The metro system had planned to extend its service hours on Christmas Eve.
On Christmas Eve, police officers also clashed with protesters inside several upscale shopping malls, using pepper spray and beating people with batons as both sides shouted verbal abuse at one another. Local media reported that one man fell inside a shopping center in out-of-town Yuen Long while escaping police officers.
In Harbor City shopping mall in Tsim Sha Tsui, black-clad protesters got into a fight with people they suspected were undercover officers earlier in the evening. They threw objects at riot police officers who entered the mall while police pointed their crowd control weapons at the demonstrators. Plainclothes officers used batons to beat protesters while yelling at them. Several people were subdued. Many shops pulled down their shutters.