Police armed with batons and pepper spray have clashed with thousands of protesters at Hong Kong’s international airport after they blockaded the departures area, forcing flights to be suspended for a second day.
After a day of largely peaceful protests, marked mostly by arguments between demonstrators and frustrated travellers, violence broke out between riot police and demonstrators after nightfall.
A group of uniformed police officers entered the airport, where they were met with a sea of laser pointers and chants of “Give back the eye”, in solidarity with a woman badly injured in earlier protests who may lose the sight in her right eye.
Those officers left and soon after riot police arrived, using pepper spray and batons to try to enter the airport. Protesters quickly erected barricades and there was a series of violent confrontations and several arrests.
At one point, unarmed demonstrators cornered an armed officer who had forced a woman to the ground, grabbed his baton off him and beat him with it until he drew a pistol and they fled, according to footage shared on social media.
Within 30 minutes, the police withdrew. They later said they had gone in to rescue an injured man who had been detained by protesters on suspicion of being an undercover officer, the Associated Press reported.
Crowds had prevented paramedics from reaching the man for several hours, even as he slipped in and out of consciousness, reporters at the scene said.
A second man detained by protesters on suspicion of being a spy was identified by the nationalistic Chinese tabloid Global Times as their reporter. The editor, Hu Xijin, appealed for his release before he was evacuated by medics.
After the police retreated, protesters barricaded themselves into the terminal, leaving the two sides in an uneasy standoff. It was the fifth consecutive day that thousands of people had flocked to demonstrate at the city’s airport.
It was reported that the airport authority had secured an injunction against those occupying the terminal building. The South China Morning Post said a source had confirmed that the authority, represented by senior counsel Benjamin Yu, was granted the injunction by a judge late on Tuesday night.
It was not immediately clear what the scope of the injunction to remove the protesters would be or how it would be enforced, but technically it would become effective once it was posted in a public area at the airport.
The pro-democracy protest movement, originally launched in response to a controversial extradition law, is now in its 10th week and there have been increasingly violent clashes between police and protesters.
The airport protest came as the United Nations high commissioner for human rights urged Hong Kong’s authorities to exercise restraint and investigate evidence of its forces firing teargas at protesters in ways banned under international law.
Airport check-in operations were suspended at 4.30pm as protesters gathered in the arrivals hall, as well as some departure areas, using luggage trolleys to blockade the doors to customs checkpoints.
Floors and walls were covered with notes penned by activists and other artwork. The scene was peaceful as protesters spoke to travellers, explaining their motives.
Rights groups and democracy activists have accused police of using increasingly excessive force. At least 40 people were treated in hospital after clashes on Sunday, including a woman who was reportedly hit with a beanbag round fired from a police shotgun and could lose an eye.
Medical staff at more than a dozen public hospitals staged a sit-in on Tuesday against police tactics and the government’s refusal to accede to protesters’ demands. The Civil Human Rights Front, a group which has organised several of the mass marches over the past two months, called for a new rally on Sunday.
The unprecedented cancellation of all flights on Monday coincided with the latest in an increasingly threatening series of statements by Beijing. A Chinese official said “terrorism” was emerging in the city, while in Hong Kong authorities demonstrated water cannon for use in crowd control.
Late on Monday, two Chinese state media outlets ran videos showing armoured personnel carriers purportedly driving to Shenzhen, which borders Hong Kong.
On Tuesday, the territory’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, said violence was pushing Hong Kong “down a path of no return”. .
Lam, who at one point appeared to be near tears, appealed for calm but again refused any concessions to protesters. “Take a minute to think, look at our city, our home, do you all really want to see it pushed into an abyss?” she asked.
Clad in black and wearing face masks, their unofficial uniform, protesters at the airport on Tuesday chanted: “Stand with Hong Kong, fight for freedom,” as passengers scrambling to catch rescheduled and delayed flights from Monday.
One protester, Vanessa Lee, said: “Of course we apologised to people who are affected by our actions but we hope they understand what we are fighting for. We spared some [space] for them to do their check-in process and we are trying to leave them.”
The protests began as opposition to a now-suspended bill that would have allowed criminal suspects to be extradited to mainland China, but have swelled into wider calls for democracy.
They have plunged the Chinese territory into its most serious crisis since the handover from British colonial rule, and presented President Xi Jinping with one of his biggest challenges since he came to power in 2012.
Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule in 1997 with a promise it would retain a high degree of autonomy, an independent judiciary and freedoms not allowed on the mainland.
Demonstrators say they are fighting against the erosion of that “one country, two systems” arrangement.
Chris Patten, Hong Kong’s last British governor, warned on Tuesday that Chinese intervention would be disastrous.
“That would be a catastrophe for China and of course for Hong Kong,” Patten told the BBC. “Since President Xi has been in office, there’s been a crackdown on dissent and dissidents everywhere. The party has been in control of everything.”
Reuters and Agence France-Presse contributed to this article