Tens of thousands of Hong Kong protesters were besieging traditional villages in the territory’s northern district of Yuen Long in defiance of police on Saturday afternoon as the city’s worst political crisis in decades took a dangerous new turn.
Police fired tear gas and, on occasion, rubber bullets to disperse helmeted and mask-wearing demonstrators who ripped down a fence and tried to force their way into the Yuen Long village of Nam Bin Wai, while inside, villagers vowed to defend their ancestral hall, the cultural centre of their community.
“We will not attack unless we are attacked,” said a villager, who identified himself only as Mr Leung.
With last weekend’s beatings and Saturday’s violence, the demonstrations have for the first time degenerated into political violence between different groups in Hong Kong society rather than just a confrontation with the government.
The demonstrations in Yuen Long were in retaliation for violence by white-shirted men, some of whom were accused and of being members of Hong Kong’s triad criminal gangs, last weekend at a railway station in the area.
The men beat protesters inside Yuen Long’s commuter railway station who were returning home from mass demonstrations in central Hong Kong, before running into the surrounding villages, including allegedly the village of Nam Bin Wai.
The city is entering its third month of the demonstrations against a proposed extradition bill that would allow criminal suspects to be sent to mainland China for trial.
Critics of the law argue it would destroy the high degree of political and legal autonomy enjoyed by Hong Kong since its handover from Britain to China in 1997.
Earlier on Saturday, villagers sat outside their ancestral hall in Nam Bin Wai while demonstrators began to gather 100 metres away, jeering and yelling while watched over by riot police.
One villager, who identified himself only as Mr Lee, said the white shirts had attacked last weekend only because protesters had entered their village.
But footage from last Sunday night shows the white shirts breaking into the commuter railway station and indiscriminately beating people with poles.
Authorities did not grant the protest organisers permission to hold the event but it still drew tens of thousands into Yuen Long’s streets.
Police responded earlier in the day than in previous protests, with groups of officers in protective clothing with shields attempting to take back streets occupied by demonstrators.
Some protesters responded by throwing projectiles such as bricks toward police. At one stage a police car was surrounded by a group of protesters who sprayed it with graffiti.
One man, who identified himself only as Wong, was among a group waving American flags.
The group said they wanted US President Donald Trump and Congress to pass legislation that would hold Beijing accountable for civic rights erosions in the territory.
“Right now Trump is having a trade war with China, so he might raise Hong Kong as a part of that,” Mr Wong said, while a colleague sang The Star-Spangled Banner on a loud speaker.
On Friday protestors and airline staff held a sit in at Hong Kong’s international airport to gain global sympathy for their cause.