Hong Kong riot police fired warning shots on Tuesday during angry clashes that erupted when authorities tried to remove illegal street stalls set up for Lunar New Year celebrations, the worst street violence since pro-democracy protests in 2014.
Protesters prised bricks from the sidewalk to hurl at police, while others toppled street signs and set fire to rubbish bins in Mong Kok, a gritty neighborhood just across the harbor from the heart of the Asian financial center.
As many as 48 police were injured in the clashes, a police spokeswoman said. Hong Kong television showed police officers being beaten with poles and sticks as they lay on the ground.
Many protesters and police were also shown with blood streaming down their faces. The police spokeswoman also said 24 protesters were arrested.
Police said two warning shots were fired into the air, with pepper spray and batons also used to disperse the crowd. Television footage showed the shots were fired as protesters surrounded several traffic police, pelting them with rubbish, bricks and bottles and wrestling one of them to the ground.
The remains of burned bins and flower pots, chunks of brick and broken bottles lay scattered along the world-famous Nathan Road shopping strip later on Tuesday morning. A taxi with shattered windows was parked nearby.
The clashes broke out after police moved in to clear "hawkers", or illegal vendors who sell local delicacies, trinkets and household goods from makeshift streetside stalls.
The hawkers, a common sight on Hong Kong's bustling streets, quickly attracted a strong social media following under the hashtag #FishballRevolution.
Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying told reporters at a hastily called news conference that the city's government strongly condemned the violence.
Secretary for Security Lai Tung-kwok said police were investigating "indications" that the clashes had been organized. When asked about the warning shots, Lai said police had taken all necessary actions.
"Not the first time"
The protesters had dispersed by 8 a.m. local time (7.00 p.m. ET) but more than 100 had confronted police in a tense, pre-dawn stand-off during the Lunar New Year holiday, when most of the city is shut down.
Police told Reuters they were awaiting orders about security plans for Tuesday night.
Paul Lee, a 65-year-old security guard, said: "This is not the first time there has been violence in Mong Kok."
"I am deeply disappointed in the government," he said.
The underground train station for Mong Kok, a bustling shopping district packed with street markets, shops and high-rise residential buildings, was closed temporarily.
The narrow streets in and around Mong Kok were the scene of some of the most violent clashes during protests in late 2014 to demand greater democracy in the former British colony that returned to Beijing rule in 1997.
Tuesday's clashes, however, appeared more violent.
Hong Kong Indigenous, a "localist" group that is fielding a candidate in a Legislative Council by-election in a few weeks, was involved in the protest, the South China Morning Post newspaper reported.
The group said on its official Facebook page that its candidate, Edward Leung Tin-kei, had been arrested. They could not be reached immediately by telephone to confirm his arrest.
Hong Kong police declined to comment on who had been involved in the protests or to confirm who had been arrested.
Many so-called localists remain deeply embittered by the lack of any concessions from Beijing or Hong Kong authorities during the pro-democracy protests. Television footage showed protesters on Tuesday shouting: "Establish a Hong Kong country!" during running battles with the police.
Radical protesters and "localists" demanding greater Hong Kong autonomy have vowed to keep fighting even as China shows signs of tightening its grip.
The clashes in December 2014 came when authorities cleared the last of pro-democracy demonstrators from the streets after more than two months of protests that had posed one of the Beijing's greatest political challenges in decades.