Hong Kong police faced criticism on Monday for an apparent failure to protect anti-government protesters and passersby from attack by what opposition politicians suspected were gang members at a train station on the weekend.
The attack on Sunday came during a night of escalating violence that opened new fronts in Hong Kong’s widening political crisis over an extradition bill, that could see people sent to China for trial.
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Protesters had earlier on Sunday surrounded China’s main representative office in the city and defaced walls and signs and clashed with police.
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The city’s Beijing-backed leader, Carrie Lam, condemned the attack on China’s main office in the city, the Central Government Liaison Office, saying it was a “challenge” to national sovereignty.
She condemned violent behavior of any kind and said she had been shocked by the clashes at the station, adding police would investigate fully.
“Violence will only breed more violence,” Lam said while flanked by senior city officials.
Some politicians and activists have linked Hong Kong’s shadowy network of triad criminal gangs to political intimidation and violence in recent years, sometimes against pro-democracy activists and critics of Beijing.
On Sunday night, scores of men in white T-shirts, some armed with clubs, flooded into the rural Yuen Long station, and stormed a train, attacking passengers with pipes, poles and other objects, according to video footage.
Witnesses, including Democratic lawmaker Lam Cheuk-ting, said the men appeared to target black-shirted passengers who had been at an anti-government march.
Lawmaker Lam, who was wounded in the face and hospitalized, said the police ignored calls he made, pleading with them to intervene to prevent bloodshed.
“They deliberately turned a blind eye to these attacks by triads on regular citizens,” he told Reuters, saying the floors of the station were streaked with blood.
“I won’t speculate on why they didn’t help immediately,” he said.
WATCH: Protesters, police in tense stand-off in Hong Kong
‘NOT A NORMAL CONFRONTATION’
Forty-five people were injured in the violence at the station, with one in critical condition, according to hospital authorities.
Hong Kong’s police chief Stephen Lo, asked about concern police had been slow to respond to the clash at the station, said there had been a need to “redeploy manpower from other districts.”
Police stations nearby had closed given the risk of unrest, and a patrol on the scene needed to wait for reinforcements, he said.
“We will pursue at all costs to bring the offenders to justice,” he told reporters, while pledging to restore public confidence in the police force.
Asked by a reporter if police had colluded with triads at the station, Lo said the force had no links to triads.
Witnesses saw groups of men in white with poles and bamboo staves at a nearby village but police later found no weapons and allowed the men to leave without making any arrests.
“We can’t say you have a problem because you are dressed in white and we have to arrest you,” said Yau Nai-keung, an assistant police commander in the area.
“We will treat them fairly no matter which camp they are in,” Yau said.
Some banks and shops in the area closed early on Monday amid fears of more trouble.
Hong Kong’s anti-triad police units in 2014 investigated the role of triad gangs attacking protesters during the pro-democracy demonstrations that shut down parts of the city for 79 days that year.
Alvin Yeung, a barrister and lawmaker with the pro-democracy Civic Party, said he was sure the men were from gangs.
“I hope that the police will not deceive themselves,” Yeung said. “It is a triad fight, and not a normal confrontation.”
WATCH: Carrie Lam says extradition bill is ‘dead’ following Hong Kong protests
Hong Kong has been rocked by a series of sometimes violent protests for more than two months in its most serious crisis since Britain handed the Asian financial hub back to Chinese rule in 1997.
Under the terms of the handover, Hong Kong was allowed to retain extensive freedoms not enjoyed on the mainland under a “one country, two systems” formula, including an independent judiciary and the right to protest.
Many city residents fear that the proposed extradition law, which would allow people to be extradited to mainland China for trial, where the courts are controlled by the Communist Party, would undermine Hong Kong’s judicial independence.
The city’s Beijing-backed government, responding the scale of the protests, postponed it and later said it was “dead” but the protesters are demanding its full withdrawal, and calling on city leader Lam to resign – something she has declined to do.
They are also demanding independent inquiries into the use of the police against protesters. Some are also demanding full democracy – anathema to Beijing’s party leadership.
On Sunday, police fired rubber bullets and tear gas to disperse activists after thousands had ringed Beijing’s Liaison Office.
The police said in statement that protesters hurled bricks, smoke grenades and petrol bombs during the unrest that came after hundreds of thousands marched through the city streets.
The Chinese government, including office director Wang Zhimin, condemned the turmoil, which included spray-painting and hurling eggs at walls and a national emblem at the office, saying the behavior challenged the “authority and dignity” of the Chinese government.
A foreign ministry spokesman said such acts tested Beijing’s limits.
“Some radical protestor behavior violated our bottom line of ‘one country, two systems’. We cannot tolerate that,” said foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang.
The unrest in Hong Kong marks the greatest popular challenge to Chinese leader Xi Jinping since he came to power in 2012.