February 15, 2016 / 2:05 AM / 4 years ago

Beijing's top official in Hong Kong calls rioters 'radical separatists'

HONG KONG (Reuters) - Beijing’s top representative in Hong Kong has blamed radical separatists for riots that erupted in the Chinese-ruled city almost a week ago, the worst violence since pro-democracy protests paralyzed parts of the Asian financial center in 2014.

Protesters look on behind a fire set by them at a junction at Mongkok district in Hong Kong, China February 9, 2016. REUTERS/Bobby Yip

More than sixty people have been arrested in connection with the violence, during which protesters hurled bricks at police and set fire to rubbish bins in Mong Kok, a tough, working-class neighborhood just across the harbor from the city’s financial district. Thirty-seven people were charged on Thursday.

The riots erupted when authorities tried to remove illegal street stalls set up for Lunar New Year celebrations.

The actions of the “radical separatists” were “leaning toward terrorism”, the South China Morning Post daily quoted Zhang Xiaoming, the head of Beijing’s Liaison Office in Hong Kong, as saying.

“We will not [allow] this very small number of radical separatists to destroy the most precious rule of law in Hong Kong,” he told a spring festival in Hong Kong.

Police fired two warning shots into the air during the violence, almost unheard of in the former British colony that reverted to Chinese rule in 1997 and is considered one of Asia’s safest cities. More than 130 people were wounded in the clashes.

At least one of those charged in connection with the trouble belongs to a group called Hong Kong Indigenous, one of a cluster of outspoken groups calling for greater Hong Kong autonomy and even independence from China, the group said.

Hong Kong leader Leung Chun-ying, who attended the same reception as Zhang, echoed the Beijing official’s comments, saying the rioters only represented a small minority in the city, the South China Morning Post reported.

Many so-called localists remain deeply embittered by the lack of any concessions from Beijing or Hong Kong authorities during the 2014 protests to demand greater democracy.

China’s Foreign Ministry has said the riot was “plotted by a local radical separatist organization”.

Reporting By Anne Marie Roantree; Editing by Paul Tait

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