Hong Kong’s airport authority suspended flights for a second day on Tuesday as thousands of protesters staged another rally at the busy international travel hub.
The action marked the fifth consecutive day of protests at the airport in the Chinese territory, which has been roiled by 10 weeks of increasingly violent clashes between police and pro-democracy protesters.
It came as the United Nations high commissioner for human rights urged Hong Kong’s authorities to exercise restraint and investigate evidence of its forces firing teargas at protesters in ways banned under international law.
Check-in operations were suspended at the airport at 4.30pm (0930 BST) as protesters gathered in the arrivals hall, as well as some departure areas, using luggage trolleys to blockade the doors to customs checkpoints.
Floors and walls were covered with notes penned by activists and other artwork. The scene was peaceful as protesters spoke to travellers, explaining their motives.
Rights groups and democracy activists have accused police of using increasingly excessive force. At least 40 people were treated in hospital after clashes on Sunday, including a woman who was reportedly hit with a beanbag round fired from a police shotgun and could lose an eye.
Medical staff at more than a dozen public hospitals elsewhere in the territory staged a sit-in on Tuesday against police tactics and the government’s refusal to accede to protesters’ demands. The Civil Human Rights Front, a group which has organised several of the mass marches over the past two months, called for a new rally on Sunday.
Michelle Bachelet, the UN human rights commissioner, urged authorities to exercise restraint. “Officials can be seen firing teargas canisters into crowded, enclosed areas and directly at individual protesters on multiple occasions, creating a considerable risk of death or serious injury,” she said in a statement that called for an investigation.
The unprecedented cancellation of all flights on Monday coincided with the latest in an increasingly threatening series of statements by Beijing. A Chinese official said “terrorism” was emerging in the city, while in Hong Kong authorities demonstrated water cannon for use in crowd control.
Late on Monday night, two Chinese state media outlets ran videos showing armoured personnel and troop carriers purportedly driving to Shenzhen, which borders Hong Kong.
On Tuesday, the territory’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, warned that violence was pushing Hong Kong in a dangerous direction. “Violence, no matter if it’s using violence or condoning violence, will push Hong Kong down a path of no return, will plunge Hong Kong society into a very worrying and dangerous situation,” she said.
Lam, who faced fierce questioning from local reporters and at one point appeared to be on the verge of tears, appealed for calm.
“Take a minute to think, look at our city, our home, do you all really want to see it pushed into an abyss,” Lam said, although she again refused to make any concessions to the protesters.
Clad in black and wearing face masks, the unofficial uniform of the protests, demonstrators at the airport on Tuesday chanted: “Stand with Hong Kong, fight for freedom” as passengers scrambling to catch rescheduled and delayed flights passed through the airport.
“Of course we apologised to people who are affected by our actions but we hope they understand what we are fighting for,” said a protester called Vanessa Lee. “We spared some [space] for them to do their check-in process and we are trying to leave them.”
Pablo Cacara, from Slovakia, said he had been stuck in Hong Kong since Monday evening. Asked about whether he was cross about missing his flight, he replied: “This is just a small problem. The problem they are trying to solve is much much bigger.”
The protests began as opposition to a now-suspended bill that would have allowed suspects’ extradition to mainland China, but have swelled into wider calls for democracy.
Demonstrations have plunged the Chinese territory into its most serious crisis in decades, presenting President Xi Jinping with one of his biggest challenges since he came to power in 2012.
Chris Patten, Hong Kong’s last British governor, warned on Tuesday that Chinese intervention would be catastrophic, and said Xi should see the wisdom of trying to bring people together.
Patten said it was counterproductive of the Chinese to warn of “other methods” if the protests did not stop.
“That would be a catastrophe for China and of course for Hong Kong,” Patten told the BBC. “Since President Xi has been in office, there’s been a crackdown on dissent and dissidents everywhere. The party has been in control of everything.”
The former British colony returned to Chinese rule in 1997 with a guarantee that under a “one country, two systems” mode of governance, the city would retain a high degree of autonomy, an independent judiciary and freedoms not allowed on the mainland.
Demonstrators say they are fighting the erosion of the “one country, two systems” arrangement.