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Chaos grips Hong Kong’s airport as police clash with protesters

A traveler shouted while holding her luggage as she tried to enter the departures gate area as Hong Kong pro-democracy protesters blocked access during another demonstration at Hong Kong's international airport on Tuesday.
A traveler shouted while holding her luggage as she tried to enter the departures gate area as Hong Kong pro-democracy protesters blocked access during another demonstration at Hong Kong's international airport on Tuesday.(PHILIP FONG/AFP/Getty Images)

HONG KONG — Bearing batons and pepper spray, Hong Kong riot police officers clashed with anti-government protesters who crippled the airport Tuesday for the second straight day, chaos that underscored the deepening unrest gripping the city.

The mayhem at the airport — in the Asian financial hub known for efficiency and order — came hours after mass protests forced the airport to suspend check-ins, as it had done Monday. The city’s embattled leader, Carrie Lam, had pleaded earlier for order after days of escalating street violence.

Thousands of demonstrators had occupied parts of Hong Kong International Airport’s departures and arrivals halls Tuesday afternoon, with some using luggage trolleys to block travelers from reaching their departure gates. The Hong Kong Airport Authority later closed check-in services and advised all passengers to leave as soon as possible.

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As of early Tuesday evening, some arriving flights were still scheduled, along with some departures, apparently for passengers who had managed to clear immigration before check-in closed. But Cathay Pacific Airways, Hong Kong’s flag carrier, told its customers to postpone “nonessential travel” out of the city for the rest of the day and Wednesday.

Monday was the first day that demonstrators had seriously disrupted operations at the airport, one of the world’s busiest. The escalation of the protests is another sign that the two-month-old movement is turning to increasingly desperate measures, amid threats from Beijing and the refusal of Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive, to meet their demands.

Hong Kong is facing its worst political crisis since the former British colony returned to Chinese rule in 1997 as a semiautonomous territory. The intensifying unrest this month has stoked widespread anxiety in the financial hub, in part because Beijing has started to warn protesters in increasingly strident terms to stand down or face consequences.

President Trump on Tuesday weighed in via tweet, saying “our intelligence has informed us that the Chinese Government is moving troops to the border with Hong Kong.”

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It is unclear what information, if any, Trump has. Although Chinese security forces have conducted large-scale operations across the border from Hong Kong in Shenzen in recent days, they appear to mainly be a nationalistic show of force.

The clashes at the airport began late in the evening when police vans arrived outside the departures hall, which was full of black-clad protesters.

Some of the protesters went outside, blocked the vans with makeshift blockades and threw plastic bottles at them. At one point, some officers in riot gear began running after protesters who were outside the terminal, wrestling some to the ground with batons.

A group of protesters surrounded a police officer inside the terminal. They took his baton and beat him with it, retreating after he appeared to pull a gun.

With tensions running high at the airport late Tuesday, a group of demonstrators surrounded and attacked a man they accused of being a mainland Chinese police officer impersonating a protester, causing him to faint. His identity could not be immediately confirmed.

As midnight neared, bands of black-clad protesters were still in the airport, while bewildered travelers, fresh off arriving flights, walked past them and into the sweltering night. The protest crowd later thinned, as did the police presence.

The continued disruptions at the airport Tuesday left some travelers frustrated and angry. Some described themselves as supporters of the protest movement who had grown disillusioned with it.

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Maisa Sodebayashi, who is from Brazil and works in a car factory in Japan, said that although she understood the protesters were fighting for democracy, she also wanted to catch her flight to Rio de Janeiro. She had been stranded in the airport for about 24 hours.

“Honestly, I don’t know what to do,” Sodebayashi said, standing beside a customer service desk.

The protesters at the airport have been particularly angered by the tactics used by police against demonstrators Sunday, including firing tear gas into a train station and sending officers into crowds dressed as demonstrators to make arrests.

On Tuesday, the UN human rights chief, Michelle Bachelet, said there was evidence that Hong Kong police had violated international standards for the use of less-lethal weapons like tear gas.

In a news conference with combative reporters Tuesday morning, Lam, Hong Kong’s leader, urged protesters to obey the law.

“The stability and well-being of 7 million people are in jeopardy,” Lam said, her voice breaking slightly. “Take a minute to think about that. Look at our city, our home. Do we really want to push our home to the abyss where it will be smashed into pieces?”

The wave of protests began in early June, in opposition to legislation that would have allowed extraditions to mainland China, where the courts are controlled by the Communist Party.

They have since morphed into calls for more direct elections, a call for Lam to resign, and an investigation of the police, among other demands.

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Beijing, which views the unrest as a direct challenge to its authority, has warned protesters to stop and has leaned on Hong Kong’s political and business elite to close ranks behind Lam, a career civil servant.