Hong Kong riot police, armed with pepper spray and batons, clash with protesters at airport
HONG KONG -- Riot police armed with pepper spray and batons clashed with protesters late Tuesday at Hong Kong's airport, bringing violence to the doors of the key international hub while passengers remained stranded inside after many departing flights were canceled.
Anti-government protesters brought chaos to the airport for a second consecutive day Tuesday as demonstrators extended their standoff with authorities who have been unable to quell months of dissent. Protesters forced the cancellation of flights by cramming into terminals and refusing to let passengers through, sparking confrontations with travelers desperate to return home.
Later in the evening, a group of demonstrators also seized a man they suspected to be an undercover Chinese police officer, cable-tied his hands and refused to let him through a large crowd. The incident showed increasing brazenness on the part of demonstrators in confronting what they perceive as symbols of the Chinese state.
Police entered the airport to help the man, whom paramedics tried to remove on a stretcher. The presence of officers sparked chaos, as protesters spilled out of the airport and began attacking police vans with officers inside.
At one point, an officer was overrun and his baton taken by protesters, who beat him with it. The group retreated only after the officer appeared to pull his gun from its holster.
After mass cancellations Monday evening, flights had been gradually returning to normal throughout Tuesday, even as thousands of black-clad demonstrators returned to occupy parts of the airport, carrying placards denouncing police brutality and calling for freedom for Hong Kong.
But by late afternoon, with protesters using luggage carts as makeshift barricades and blocking passengers from reaching the departure gates, causing long lines, authorities said they were suspending check-in at both of the airport's terminals.
Arguments erupted between frustrated passengers and protesters, with some stranded passengers crying and saying they just wanted to get home.
Pavol Cacara, a Slovakian machinery importer who faced off with protesters, said his flight to Istanbul was canceled once already.
"You cannot make freedom by taking freedom from others!" he bellowed, shaking with rage, at a mass of young demonstrators in black T-shirts. "This is what the Chinese want you to do, to make you lose support of the world. You are helping them!"
Tensions soared. As Cacara fumed, some protesters tried to calm him down and offered to help him find alternate flights while others pleaded with him to see Hong Kong's plight. "You don't die if you leave! We will die here!" called a voice in the rear.
After a 20-minute standoff, protesters parted to form a narrow channel to let a few passengers through. "Thank you for understanding. Please tell the world!" one yelled after Cacara.
A more disturbing scene began taking shape later in the day when a group of protesters surrounded a man they believed to be an undercover police officer from Shenzhen, the Chinese city across the border from Hong Kong. There was no confirmation of the man's identity or profession, but the protesters did not let him move or leave for hours.
The man appeared to fall unconscious, but protesters refused to let paramedics through. When about half a dozen paramedics reached him, they struggled to move him through the crush of protesters that formed around them. Those closest to the melee held their phones aloft and tried to film the struggling man. Some protesters jeered and laughed at the man. Paramedics also pleaded with protesters to hand them water to give him as he sat motionless on the ground.
Protesters held a handmade sign over the man that read in English, "I am China's police. I pretend to be protester," as he struggled to remain conscious.
Earlier, some protesters chanted "return the eye" -- a reference to an incident Sunday night when a young woman was shot in the eye, possibly by a bean bag round, during a clash between police and protesters. Senior officers said Tuesday they were unsure how the woman was injured but could not promise that she would not be charged with rioting.
Police said they were closely monitoring the situation at the airport, working with airport authorities, and would carefully consider the need to use force.
Confusion descended over the airport by evening as passengers tried to scale barricades of luggage carts and human walls formed by protesters, who tried to hold them off with outstretched arms.
Still, the confrontations stopped short of violence. Time and again, protesters scolded their peers when tempers flared. Chants of "Lang jing!" -- Calm down! -- rang through the departure hall when arguments threatened to boil over.
Roving teams of protesters handed snacks to stranded passengers and appealed for understanding as they distributed pamphlets detailing their case against police brutality. Others bowed repeatedly and said "sorry" without yielding their ground in the face of angry passengers.
"Sorry for inconvenience. We have no choice," said a sign held in front of a barricade blocking departures.
Other passengers took a more sympathetic view.
Krishna Hariharan, a 27-year-old IT engineer from Chennai, India, said his five-day holiday in Hong Kong was already extended to seven days because of canceled flights. His boss was not pleased, and he had to sleep in the terminal because he was running out of money, he said.
But he praised a group of who protesters who had come over to apologize and give him bottled water and biscuits.
"I can't blame anyone," Hariharan said. "They are seeking justice, and it just happens that our fates are intertwined like this. If the government comes down hard on them -- then what are they governing for?"
Carrie Lam, Hong Kong's leader, said the city risked being "pushed into an abyss" and warned that it could be "smashed to pieces."
"The stability and well-being of 7 million people are in jeopardy," Lam said.
As the summer of unrest rolls on, the situation is becoming increasingly tense. Statements from Chinese government officials and state media have grown steadily more shrill, accusing protesters of "terrorism" and warning of an impending crackdown in the semiautonomous financial center.
The political crisis, triggered by now-suspended plans to allow extraditions to mainland China, has swollen as Hong Kongers demand the bill's full withdrawal, an independent inquiry into police actions toward protesters, greater democracy and an amnesty for those arrested in clashes between demonstrators and police.
The upheaval has come at a politically sensitive time for Chinese leader Xi Jinping, ahead of the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China, which the ruling Communist Party plans to mark with a military parade in October.
Hong Kong-based airline Cathay Pacific, which has drawn the ire of Beijing after some of its staff recently joined protests, said Tuesday that a second pilot from the airline has been suspended. The pilot, a second officer working on a flight Tuesday from Manchester to Hong Kong, was suspended for "misuse of company information in violation of the company's internal code of conduct," the company said in a statement. It added that internal disciplinary proceedings were underway.
On Saturday, Hong Kong's flagship airline said it had suspended a pilot who was arrested during earlier protests.
International calls grew, meanwhile, for authorities in Hong Kong and China to dial back tensions in the city.
U.N. human rights chief Michelle Bachelet urged authorities to immediately investigate police use of force in their recent crackdown on protesters. Her spokesman said there was "credible evidence" to suggest that Hong Kong law enforcement officials had used less-than-lethal force in ways that are "prohibited by international norms and standards."
Chris Patten, the last British governor of colonial Hong Kong before the city's return to Chinese sovereignty in 1997, warned that a Chinese intervention would be a "catastrophe" for both Hong Kong and China.
Speaking to BBC radio, he urged Lam and Xi to find a way to bring people together.
"There is a degree of frustration and anger at the government refusing to give any sensible ground at all, which probably provokes more violence," Patten said.
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The Washington Post's Anna Kam in Hong Kong and Shibani Mahtani in Cadiz City, Philippines, contributed to this report.