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Clashes in Hong Kong as face masks banned under rare emergency powers

In the northern district of Yuen Long, a police officer opened fire when he was surrounded in his car and attacked by protesters, a petrol bomb exploding at his feet.

FILE: A protester throws back a tear gas canister during clashes with riot police at Kowloon Bay in Hong Kong on 24 August 2019, in the latest opposition to a planned extradition law that has since morphed into a wider call for democratic rights in the semi-autonomous city. Picture: AFP

CHINA – Hong Kong's leader invoked colonial-era emergency powers Friday to ban protesters wearing face masks, but the move aimed at quelling months of unrest sparked immediate rallies, widespread clashes and vows to defy the new law.

Chief executive Carrie Lam said she made the order under the Emergency Regulations Ordinances, a sweeping provision that grants her the ability to bypass the legislature and make any law during a time of emergency or public danger.

It is the first time the law has been used in 52 years.

"We believe that the new law will create a deterrent effect against masked violent protesters and rioters, and will assist the police" in law enforcement, Lam said.

As soon as the ban was announced, widespread protests broke out across Hong Kong. Large crowds of mostly office workers blocked roads in the heart of the commercial district.

Some protesters tore down pro-China banners, before clashes erupted throughout the evening. Police used tear gas in multiple locations to disperse protesters who had taken over roads, vandalised subway stations, set street fires and trashed pro-China businesses.

In the northern district of Yuen Long, a police officer opened fire when he was surrounded in his car and attacked by protesters, a petrol bomb exploding at his feet.

"A large crowd of rioters attacked a plainclothes officer. He fell into the ground, then got beaten by a lot of people. Under this life-threatening situation, the police officer fired a live round for his safety," police said in a statement.

The entire subway network was also suspended, leaving protesters, locals and Friday night revellers stranded.

Online forums used by protesters filled with angry comments and vows to hit the streets over the three-day weekend.

"Youngsters are risking their lives, they don't mind being jailed for 10 years, so wearing masks is not a problem," a 34-year-old office worker wearing a surgical mask, who gave her first name as Mary, told AFP.

'WATERSHED'

Beijing threw its backing behind the ban, which it described as "extremely necessary".

"The current chaos in Hong Kong cannot continue indefinitely," Yang Guang, spokesperson for the Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office of China's central government, said in a statement.

"An important moment has come for stopping the violence with a clearer attitude and more effective measures," he added.

Critics said Lam's move was a major step towards authoritarianism for Hong Kong, which has been governed by China under a "one country, two systems" framework since British colonial rule ended in 1997.

"This is a watershed. This is a Rubicon," pro-democracy lawmaker Claudia Mo told AFP.

"And I'm worried this could be just a starter. More draconian bans in the name of law could be lurking around the corner."

Prominent democracy activist Joshua Wong said the law "marks the beginning of the end of Hong Kong".

"It is ironic that a colonial-era weapon is being used by the Hong Kong government and the Chinese Communist Party," he told AFP.

Pro-Beijing lawmakers and police associations welcomed the ban.

The last time the law was invoked was during riots in 1967 - a period where more than 50 people were killed in a year-long leftist bombing and murder spree.

TOUGH PENALTIES

Hong Kong's protests were ignited by a now-scrapped plan to allow extraditions to the mainland, which fueled fears of an erosion of liberties promised under "one country, two systems".

After Beijing and local leaders took a hard line, the demonstrations snowballed into a wider movement calling for more democratic freedoms and police accountability.

Protesters have used face masks to avoid identification and respirators to protect themselves from tear gas.

The ban came after the worst violence of the year on Tuesday, when China celebrated 70 years of Communist Party rule. During clashes, an officer shot and wounded a teenager - the first such shooting since the demonstrations began.

The new law, which Lam said would take effect at midnight, threatens anyone wearing masks at legal and unsanctioned protests with up to one year in prison.

People can still wear masks in the street, but must remove them if asked to by police.

Exemptions are available for religious and medical reasons and for those who need masks to do their jobs - such as reporters.

Lam said she did not rule out further laws under the emergency provisions if the violence worsened. Even moderate protesters have already shown a willingness to break the law in large numbers, appearing at unsanctioned rallies in their tens of thousands.

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