All flights in and out of Hong Kong were cancelled on Monday after thousands of pro-democracy protesters flooded the city’s airport to denounce police violence.
The abrupt shutdown at one of the world’s busiest hubs came as the Chinese government signalled its rising anger at the protesters, denouncing some of the violent demonstrations as “terrorism”.
The developments marked yet another dramatic escalation in a 10-week crisis that had already become the biggest challenge to Chinese rule of Hong Kong since the 1997 British handover.
A crowd of protesters that authorities said numbered more than 5,000 descended on Hong Kong airport on Monday carrying placards and chanting slogans about police violence.
Although other rallies had been held at the transport hub over the previous three days, Monday’s was the first to have a significant impact on passengers.
“Airport operations at Hong Kong International Airport have been seriously disrupted as a result of the public assembly at the airport today,” it said in a statement.
“Members of the public are advised not to come to the airport.”
Loudspeakers were periodically telling people: “All flights have been cancelled, please leave as soon as possible”.
Hong Kong-based carrier Cathay Pacific warned the disruption could extend into Tuesday, and advised customers to “postpone non-essential travel”.
At the airport, protesters held signs reading “Hong Kong is not safe” and “Shame on police”.
They accuse the force of using increasingly violent and disproportionate tactics to suppress protests.
Over the weekend police fired tear gas into subway stations and crowded shopping streets as they confronted protesters at nearly a dozen locations across the city.
Protesters responded by hurling bricks and spraying riot police with fire extinguishers and water hoses.
Demonstrators were also enraged at police apparently dressing in the black T-shirts worn by the pro-democracy movement to infiltrate the rallies and make surprise arrests.
Officials said 45 people were hurt in the clashes, including two who were in serious condition.
“It is becoming more and more dangerous, but if we don’t still come out at this point, our future will become more frightening, and we will lose our freedoms,” said one 22-year-old protester who gave her family name as Chan.
It was the 10th consecutive weekend that protesters had taken to the streets in a movement that began over opposition to a bill allowing extradition to mainland China.
The protests have morphed into a broader bid to reverse a slide of democratic freedoms in the southern Chinese city.
The city’s Beijing-backed leader has ruled out concessions and warned the protesters were causing economic chaos.
The city’s transport chief Frank Chan said Monday that Hong Kong would pay a “heavy price” for the airport’s closure.
In Beijing, authorities slammed violent protesters who threw petrol bombs at police officers, linking them to “terrorism”.
“Hong Kong’s radical demonstrators have repeatedly used extremely dangerous tools to attack police officers, which already constitutes a serious violent crime, and also shows the first signs of terrorism emerging,” said Yang Guang, spokesman for the Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office of the State Council.
“This wantonly tramples on Hong Kong’s rule of law and social order.”
The protests have infuriated Beijing, which has lashed out at Cathay Pacific, imposing new regulations on the airline that ban staff sympathetic with the demonstrations from flying to or over the mainland.
Cathay has found itself caught in the crossfire in the increasingly bitter standoff, and warned staff on Monday that they could be fired if they participated in, or supported “illegal protests”.