HONG KONG — Protesters in Hong Kong ended their overnight siege of police headquarters peacefully Saturday, disappointed that their demands for the territory's leader to formally withdraw a contentious extradition bill and police to apologize for heavy handed tactics have gone unmet.
By daybreak, police had cleared the streets of barriers set up by protesters to snarl traffic in the Asian financial center, and only a few groups in the mostly youthful crowd remained. Many slept outside the legislature.
Traffic was again smooth on a major thoroughfare through the government's central complex as the protest movement regrouped to consider next moves.
Police said nine female and four male staffers were hospitalized "with considerable delay" during the blockade. The police statement did not say whether they were injured in clashes or had otherwise become unwell.
Around police headquarters, masked and helmeted protesters covered surveillance cameras with masking tape and lashed barriers together with nylon cable ties. They threw eggs at the building and drew graffiti on the walls. Protesters also "splashed oil" and targeted police officers' eyes with laser pointers, according to the police.
Hong Kong has been rocked by major protests for the past two weeks over legislative proposals that many view as eroding the territory's judicial independence and, more broadly, as a sign of Chinese government efforts to chip away at the city's freedoms.
Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam indefinitely suspended debate on the bills a week ago, making it likely they would die. But protesters are demanding that she formally withdraw the proposed changes to the extradition laws, which would expand the scope of criminal suspect transfers to include mainland China, Taiwan and Macau. Some also want Lam to resign.
Legal and business groups in Hong Kong oppose the legislation, saying critics of China's ruling Communist Party would be at risk of torture and unfair trials on the mainland and that it further erode the "one country, two systems" framework under which Hong Kong has been governed since the handover from British rule in 1997.
The peaceful ending to Friday's protests drew a sigh of relief in the city of 7.4 million people, after police unleashed tear gas and rubber bullets last week in violent clashes that left dozens injured on both sides. Police were previously criticized for their use of force but this time waited out the protesters. Police did issue a statement at 4:50 a.m. condemning them for blocking key streets and seriously disrupting work at police headquarters.
"Police have shown the greatest tolerance to the protesters who assembled outside PHQ, but their means of expressing views have become illegal, irrational and unreasonable," the statement said in part.
Activist Joshua Wong called on police to answer demands over heavy handed tactics used during a mass protest on June 12, including the firing of 150 rounds of tear gas, rubber bullets and beanbag rounds, and the beating of unarmed protesters by police with truncheons.
"We ... urge police to apologize to the people" over the use of such tactics and their labeling of the gathering as a riot, Wong said.
The auxiliary bishop of Hong Kong's Catholic Diocese, the Rev. Joseph Ha, appealed to the protesters to avoid violence. He warned that public opinion could turn against them.
"You have already been on the roads for a long time," he said on Cable TV Hong Kong. "You've already done a lot. You have already expressed very clearly your hopes and wishes. But I am really worried about your personal safety. ... Please, absolutely, do not use violence."
Since the confrontations June 12, police have eased their approach, hoping to avoid a replay of 2014 protests, when officers unleashed 87 rounds of tear gas at protesters in the same location as the current protests. When the smoke from that response cleared, bigger crowds returned, angrier than before, and didn't leave for nearly three months.
The Communist Party under Chinese President Xi Jinping has been pushing ever more aggressively to quiet independent voices in Hong Kong. Beijing has squelched all reporting on the protests in mainland media and accused foreign forces of stirring up disturbances in Hong Kong.
Opposition to the legislation has come from a broad range of civic, human rights, legal profession and commercial organizations. Politicians in the U.S., the U.K. and elsewhere have also weighed in, underscoring Hong Kong's status as a global financial center with strong legal guarantees — despite its ultimate control by China's authoritarian leaders.
Despite that, Beijing has not come out strongly in favor of ramming through the legislation, perhaps mindful of threats to Hong Kong's special economic status amid a trade war with the U.S.
Under the 1992 U.S.-Hong Kong Policy Act, Beijing needs to abide by its "one country, two systems" promises to respect the territory's legal autonomy for 50 years as promised under the agreement signed with Britain for the 1997 handover.