Anti-government protesters returned to the streets of Hong Kong over the Christmas holiday, clashing with riot police in malls and busy shopping districts across the semiautonomous Chinese territory.
The city’s embattled leader, Carrie Lam, accused the demonstrators of ruining the holiday. Her critics say the government and police used unnecessarily heavy-handed tactics to disperse what began as peaceful gatherings, albeit without official permission.
Hundreds of black-clad protesters, many wearing reindeer antlers, occupied malls and other shopping areas on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day as part of the months-long campaign for democratic and police reforms in the city.
Police accused the protesters of “rioting” and vandalism, and attempted to disperse them using pepper spray and batons while indoors, and firing tear gas and deploying water cannons on the streets.
Protesters blocked roads and destroyed a bank branch. Police also said petrol bombs were thrown. More than 100 people were arrested, authorities said.
Unlike in mainland China, December 25 and December 26 are public holidays in Hong Kong, where around 12% of the population are Christian.
“Many members of the public and tourists coming to Hong Kong were naturally disappointed that their Christmas Eve celebrations have been ruined by a group of reckless and selfish rioters,” Lam said in a Facebook post on Christmas Day.
One protester was hospitalized after falling several feet in a mall on Christmas Eve. Authorities said he “pushed their officer to the ground and suddenly jumped across a glass fence in an attempt to escape, and fell.”
The man was conscious and sent to the hospital, and has since been arrested for assaulting a police officer.
Hong Kong Watch, a UK-based non- governmental organization, accused the force of committing “truly outrageous police brutality” on Christmas Eve. The government responded to the allegations in a statement, saying that police only deployed “minimum force. ”
Scenes like these and accusations of wrongdoing on both sides have become increasingly common as the political unrest in the city has dragged on.
The movement began in June, with hundreds of thousands of people taking to the streets to oppose a bill that would have allowed Hong Kong to extradite suspected criminals to mainland China.
Though the bill was inspired by the city’s inability to extradite the suspect of a grisly murder to Taiwan, many Hong Kongers feared it would be used by Beijing to pursue political dissidents in the city, which allows for greater freedom of speech and the press than on the mainland.
China’s legal system has a notoriously high conviction rate and is widely considered to be beholden to the ruling Communist Party.
Lam agreed to withdraw the bill in September but failed to stymie the anger it inspired. The movement has since grown to encompass demands for universal suffrage and investigations into allegations of brutality against the city’s police force – once widely respected, but now marred by mistrust, according to opinion polls.
Protests have become increasingly violent. In recent months, authorities have announced several seizures of homemade bombs and explosives.
Authorities said they raided a storage warehouse on Wednesday in the industrial neighborhood of Kwun Tong after receiving an intelligence tip. In a Facebook post, police said they found 500 grams (17.6 ounces) of smoke bombs, 15 grams (0.5 ounces) of explosives, and dozens of bottles of chemicals.
An 18-year-old student has been arrested and charged in relation to the seizures and could face 14 years in prison if convicted.
CNN’s Erin Chan and Akanksha Sharma contributed reporting