Flights restart at Hong Kong airport as protesters apologize
HONG KONG - Flights resumed Wednesday at Hong Kong's airport after two days of disruptions that descended into clashes with police, highlighting the hardening positions of pro-democracy protesters and the authorities in the semi-autonomous Chinese city. After nightfall, a new protest outside a police station in the city was dispersed as officers fired tear gas.
There was soul-searching in the protest movement, including the three dozen demonstrators who remained camped at the airport arrivals area. They asked travelers and the general public for forgiveness after their blockade turned into chaotic and frenzied violence.
While the movement's supporters still have street protests planned, it's unclear what their next move is or whether they will be able to find new rallying sites to keep the pressure on authorities.
Protesters spread pamphlets and posters on the floor in one section of the terminal but were not impeding travelers. Online, they also circulated letters and promotional materials apologizing for the inconveniences during the past five days of the airport occupation.
"It is not our intention to cause delays to your travels and we do not want to cause inconvenience to you," said an emailed statement from a group of protesters. "We ask for your understanding and forgiveness as young people in Hong Kong continue to fight for freedom and democracy."
The airport's management said it had obtained "an interim injunction to restrain persons from unlawfully and willfully obstructing or interfering" with airport operations. It said an area of the airport had been set aside for demonstrations, but no protests would be allowed outside the designated area.
Additional identification checks were in place, but check-in counters were open and flights appeared to be operating normally. The demonstration resulted in more than 100 flight cancellations on Tuesday and about 200 on Monday.
Hong Kong police said they arrested five people during clashes at the airport Tuesday night.
Assistant Commissioner of Police Operations Mak Chin-ho said the men, aged between 17 and 28, were arrested for illegal assembly. Two were also charged with assaulting a police officer and possessing weapons as riot police sought to clear the terminal.
In Hong Kong's blue-collar Sham Shui Po neighborhood, police fired tear gas Wednesday night at a group of protesters rallying outside a police station.
The protesters had gathered to burn phony currency and incense as a way to show their opposition to the police during the month-long Hungry Ghost Festival, when offerings are made to ward off the spirits of ancestors.
Police armed with riot shields and batons marched through the neighborhood. Officers carried warning flags and fired tear gas as they advanced, but protesters had already scrambled away.
More than 700 protesters have been arrested in total since early June, mostly men in their 20s and 30s, but also including women, teenagers and septuagenarians.
Mak said additional suspects from the airport were expected to be arrested, including those who assaulted an officer after stripping him of his baton and pepper spray, prompting him to draw his gun to fend them off.
Hong Kong law permits life imprisonment for those who commit violent acts or acts that might interfere with flight safety at an airport.
More than 74 million travelers pass through Hong Kong's airport each year, making it "not an appropriate place of protest," Mak said.
"Hong Kong police have always facilitated peaceful and orderly protests over the years, but the extremely radical and violent acts have certainly crossed the line and are to be most severely condemned," he said. "The police pledge to all citizens of Hong Kong that we will take steps to bring all culprits to justice."
That was backed up by a statement on a new government website set up to provide the latest information on the crisis, which said, "The police will take relentless enforcement action to bring the persons involved to justice."
Hong Kong airline Cathay Pacific said it had canceled 272 flights in the past two days, affecting more than 55,000 passengers, while 622 departures and arrivals went ahead.
Cathay also said it has fired two pilots in an apparent response to their involvement in activity related to pro-democracy protests. They included one pilot who is "currently involved in legal proceedings." The airline said earlier this week one of its pilots has been charged with rioting after being arrested during a protest.
It said the second fired pilot "misused company information," but gave no other details. The Hong Kong Free Press reported the pilot posted a photo of a cockpit screen on an online forum used by protesters.