Hong Kong police chief says tear gas, rubber bullets and beanbag rounds used in self-defence against extradition bill rioters, opposition lawmakers say force has ‘gone crazy’

Clifford Lo
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Hong Kong police chief says tear gas, rubber bullets and beanbag rounds used in self-defence against extradition bill rioters, opposition lawmakers say force has ‘gone crazy’

Police fired tear gas, rubber bullets and rounds of beanbags at protesters outside Hong Kong’s legislature on Wednesday, leading to accusations officers had “gone crazy”.

The use of tear gas came nearly five years after 87 rounds of irritant chemical spray was sprayed at demonstrators at the dawn of the 79-day Occupy protest in 2014, drawing criticism and sparking international attention.

Describing a “riot” situation in Admiralty, the police chief, Stephen Lo Wai-chung, who will retire in November, said officers responded with tear gas, rubber bullets and beanbag rounds, along with other weapons such as batons and pepper spray, when protesters stormed police lines.

Protesters could have used sharpened metal bars to stab officers if they did not deploy appropriate force to protect themselves and hold their defensive lines, Lo added.

The Legislative Council's pan-democratic bloc issued a condemnation of Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor and the police for “clamping down a largely peaceful protest with excessive force”.

Claudia Mo Man-ching, the bloc’s convenor, said: “We severely condemn the police for using excessive force and smearing the mostly peaceful protesters as rioters.”

Lo described the situation in Admiralty as “chaotic”, saying members of the public should not enter the area.

Soon after 3.30pm, police started to hurl tear gas canisters and fire rounds of tear gas ammunition to disperse protesters in Tim Wa Avenue, Tim Mei Avenue, Lung Wo Road and Harcourt Road.

At 6pm, police were still trying to establish how many rounds were used.

In addition to batons, shields and helmets, police were equipped with tear gas canisters, tear gas ammunition, handheld pepper spray, and a pepper spray-based solution that could be projected into the crowd.

The force also had 38mm-calibre Federal Riot Guns – nicknamed “big mouth guns” with an effective range of up to 20 metres – that could fire rubber baton rounds.

Other anti-riot equipment being deployed included shotguns firing rounds of beanbags.

Tactical anti-riot beanbags, called the “super sock round” and comprising small bags containing pellets, are considered a non-lethal weapon.

Following the 2014 pro-democracy Occupy protest and the 2016 Mong Kok riot, three anti-riot vehicles equipped with water cannons and powerful jets for dispensing pepper spray based solution were among the new equipment acquired by police.

The force also bought 400 new tactical suits designed to protect officers from heat-related injuries and missiles.

The upgrade was made in the wake of the Mong Kok riot, which saw more than 100 police injured by hurled bricks and fires started by demonstrators.

A law enforcement source said the force had tested some mid-range crowd control equipment such as new anti-riot rubber bullets, but no purchases were made.

This type of rubber bullet, fired from Remington shotguns, had an effective range up to 50 metres.

The hi-tech bullets were among other mid-range crowd control equipment, such as pepper balls, recommended by an internal subcommittee set up to review police arms, equipment and training in response to the Mong Kok riot.

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Police originally deployed, on Tuesday evening, more than 5,000 officers in 12-hour shifts daily throughout the operation, which is expected to last for more than a week.

All five regional response contingents are among thousands deployed in the operation. The units, each with 600 officers, were set up after the 2014 Occupy protests.

More than 100 elite officers from the special tactical squad, known as blue team, were also deployed in the operation. The elite squad comprises officers from the force’s counterterrorism division and airport security unit.

After thousands of demonstrators occupied two major thoroughfares on Wednesday morning, extra officers were drafted in from all police districts to deal with protesters.

Democrat Andrew Wan Siu-kin said he and two other lawmakers were sprayed with at least three rounds of pepper solution when they tried to break up clashes between police and protesters, despite repeatedly revealing their identities.

“The government and the police have gone crazy. How much more blood does Carrie Lam want before she can finally agree to call the bill off?” Wan said.

Comparing Lam with her predecessor Leung Chun-ying’s handling of the 2014 Occupy protest, Civic Party lawmaker Jeremy Tam Man-ho said: “Even Leung didn't dare deploy bullets.”

Tam Yiu-chung, Hong Kong's sole delegate to China's top legislative body, said the police had no choice but to resort to violence to control the situation.

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“There are so many protesters. They set up barricades and provoked police with umbrellas,” he said. “They are not just holding silent protests. They are agitated.”

He added police gave warnings when firing. Regarding protesters injured by the police, Tam said police were also hurt.

“I surely don't want to see things develop like this,” he said. “I hope protesters can control themselves.”

Barrister Ronny Tong Ka-wah, a member of the government's top advisory panel, the Executive Council, said he believed police had no alternative but to use beanbag rounds, rubber bullets and other measures.

“I don't think there is any major issue with the police's handling of the protest,” he said. “It is their responsibility to maintain order.”

Referring to live images of brick-carrying protesters wearing helmets, masks and goggles, Tong said: “If the protesters have no plan to resort to violence, why they are so well prepared?”

He said it was unavoidable that some people were injured in such a big protest, adding: “I hope both sides can be restrained.”

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