HONG KONG, Jul 28, 2019, SCMP. Hong Kong police on Saturday ordered additional train services and gave protesters time to leave Yuen Long – a new tactic to avoid a repeat of bloody confrontations at a Sha Tin shopping centre two weeks ago, reported the South China Morning Post.
About 90 minutes after tens of thousands of protesters gathered outside Nam Pin Wai village, removing fences from roads, vandalising police vehicles and attacking officers with bricks, umbrellas and iron poles, the force ordered a dispersal operation at 5pm and fired the first round of tear gas, followed by many more rounds and sponge grenades.
The tension and confrontation between protesters and police initially eased at around 6.30pm with officers pushing their cordon lines back.
Protesters even negotiated with riot police, asking them not to block roads to the railway stations or trap them in shopping centres.
Despite the new tactics, violence flared as officers ran inside Yuen Long station and hit protesters with their batons. Multiple rounds of tear gas, rubber bullets and sponge rounds were also fired earlier in the day.
The chaotic scenes were broadcast live around the world, drawing an angry response from human rights activists.
As of 1am on Sunday, 23 people had been injured, with two in serious condition. Police also arrested 11 people.
Senior Superintendent Yolanda Yu Hoi-kwan of the Police Public Relations explained why officers from the elite Special Tactical Squad had entered the station.
“Protesters were throwing fire extinguishers from the bridge of the West Rail line at officers on the ground. We entered the station and got the scene under control,” she said.
But she admitted the force had been unable to notify the MTR in advance as events unfolded so quickly.
A senior police officer with knowledge of the operation, asked whether the force planned to wait for the crowds to disperse themselves at midnight, said: “Not exactly. But some protesters were leaving. We halted the operation for a short while to give people time to leave from Long Ping and Yuen Long stations on West Rail line.
“Then our operation continued. We didn’t want to give protesters the chance to accuse us of trapping them, as in Sha Tin two weeks ago.”
Police officers who tried to clear extradition bill protesters from Sha Tin’s New Town Plaza on July 14 were surrounded and assaulted by groups of youths in masks and helmets. Demonstrators were beaten and pepper sprayed in scenes of chaos, with families also getting caught up in the violence.
Protesters had tried to leave via the MTR, through New Town Plaza, but were blocked by police.
As the trouble erupted, passengers on an MTR train in Sha Tin station would not allow it to leave to allow as many protesters to board as possible, fearing it would be the last one of the night and there would be no escape.
It prompted the MTR to stop service at Sha Tin station.
Shortly before 7.30pm on Saturday, the railway giant announced a special train service on the West Rail line with empty trains departing Long Ping every 10 minutes. Other trains did not stop at Long Ping station.
Police also appealed to members of public to leave eastward towards Yuen Long MTR station as the dispersal operation continued.
“Violent clashes broke out at various locations in Yuen Long as some protesters removed fences from the kerbside and used metal barriers to block roads. Some hurled bricks and hard objects at police officers and charged cordon lines,” the police statement read.
“To prevent further deterioration of the situation, police appeal to members of the public to leave in the eastern direction, towards Yuen Long MTR station and to avoid travelling in the Yuen Long area.”
MTR Corp did not release details about the number of additional trains arranged.
The source also explained why officers had not arrested protesters at the scene, since they were engaged in an unlawful assembly.
“It often causes a scene and sparks even more attacks by protesters if we arrest someone on the spot. But we collected necessary evidence for further investigation,” he said.
Police are yet to reveal the number of arrests.
Relations between police and government soured on the eve of the protest as Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung Kin-chung publicly apologised for the force’s failure to stop a violent mob rampage in the northern town last Sunday.
Stunned police associations were outraged as they had not been consulted in advance about the unexpected apology, which they themselves had refused to make, and top brass sought an urgent meeting with Cheung.
Lam Chi-wai, chairman of Junior Police Officers’ Association which represents 25,000 police officers, said Cheung’s remark had badly damaged morale, but they would not let his words affect their performance in Yuen Long.