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Hong Kong: flights resume at airport as China condemns 'near-terrorist acts'

The Guardian logo The Guardian 14/08/2019 Martin Farrer, and Erin Hale in Hong Kong
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Flights have resumed in and out of Hong Kong airport after two days of protests by pro-democracy activists as Chinese officials condemned the disruption that paralysed the international hub as “near-terrorist acts”.

Hundreds of flights were cancelled on Tuesday after demonstrators blockaded two terminals in the latest escalation of a 10-week political crisis that has gripped the city.

Related: 'Frightened, angry and exhausted' Hong Kong protesters apologise for airport violence

But by Wednesday only about 30 protesters remained at the airport and flights began taking off on a more regular basis.

The airport’s website showed dozens of flights taking off overnight and listed hundreds more which were scheduled to depart throughout the day, although many were delayed.

Check-in desks were operating normally as hundreds of delayed passengers queued up and airport staff scrubbed the terminals clean of blood and debris from overnight.

It came as Beijing stepped up its war of words against the protesters.

China’s Hong Kong and Macao affairs office said in a statement that the airport protests were “near-terrorist acts”. It also strongly condemned attacks against a reporter from China’s Global Times newspaper at the airport by what it said were violent protesters.

a group of people with luggage at an airport: A protester shows a placard to stranded travellers during a demonstration at Hong Kong airport. © AP A protester shows a placard to stranded travellers during a demonstration at Hong Kong airport. The ruling Communist party’s official People’s Daily newspaper said on Wednesday that Hong Kong had reached a critical juncture.

“Using the sword of the law to stop violence and restore order is overwhelmingly the most important and urgent task for Hong Kong!” it said. Another commentary by a Shenzhen University researcher, published by the China Daily, said the central government should deal with Hong Kong issues more decisively.

Hong Kong’s Airport Authority said it had obtained an interim injunction against protesters to keep them from returning to disrupt the airport – meaning if they do return they could face arrest or forced removal by police.

A similar action was taken against protesters in the last weeks of 2014’s Umbrella Movement democracy protests, clearing the way for police to remove protesters from a sit-in.

The injunction came after protesters physically blocked travellers from accessing flights throughout Tuesday afternoon.

In the evening they battled with riot police armed with pepper spray and batons outside the terminal. There were several flashpoints, including when demonstrators overpowered an armed officer who had forced a woman to the ground. They backed off when he drew a pistol, according to footage shared on social media.

Protesters also held a man at the airport on suspicion of being a spy. He was identified by the nationalistic Chinese newspaper Global Times as their reporter and later released.

Police condemned the protesters overnight and said on Wednesday morning that a large group had “harassed and assaulted a visitor and a journalist”. Five people were detained, bringing the total number of people arrested since the protests began in June to more than 600, police said.

The Hang Seng stock index fell to a seven-month low on Tuesday and embattled Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam said the city had been pushed into a state of “panic and chaos”.

Donald Trump said on Tuesday that the situation in Hong Kong was tricky, but he hoped it would be resolved “for liberty” without anyone getting hurt or killed.

The US president cited intelligence as saying that China’s government was moving troops to its border with Hong Kong, and urged calm after the airport clashes.

It was not immediately clear whether Trump was reporting fresh troop movements or movements near the border already reported in the media. “Our intelligence has informed us that the Chinese government is moving troops to the border with Hong Kong. Everyone should be calm and safe!” he tweeted.

“The Hong Kong thing is a very tough situation – very tough,” Trump told reporters earlier during a visit to Morristown, New Jersey. “We’ll see what happens.”

Riot police use pepper spray to disperse anti-extradition bill protesters. Photograph: Tyrone Siu/Reuters © Reuters Riot police use pepper spray to disperse anti-extradition bill protesters. Photograph: Tyrone Siu/Reuters

“It’s a very tricky situation. I think it will work out and I hope it works out, for liberty. I hope it works out for everybody, including China,” Trump said. “I hope it works out peacefully. I hope nobody gets hurt. I hope nobody gets killed.”

The US state department said secretary of state Mike Pompeo and top Chinese diplomat Yang Jiechi “had an extended exchange of views on US-China relations” on Tuesday. It said the meeting took place in New York but did not elaborate.

US Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell warned China on Monday that any violent crackdown on protests in Hong Kong would be “completely unacceptable”.

On Tuesday, China’s state media said an official with the foreign ministry office in Hong Kong denounced the “arrogance and biases of some US politicians”, adding that McConnell’s remarks sent protesters a “seriously mistaken signal”. In a statement later on Tuesday, China’s foreign ministry told Washington to stay out of its internal affairs.

Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests are a leaderless movement that has managed to mobilise large crowds through social media and messaging apps.

Activists turned their attention to the economically vital airport after weeks of huge peaceful rallies – and increasingly violent clashes between hardliners and police – failed to win any concessions from the city’s leaders or Beijing.

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