Hong Kong protest leaders urge turnout for march, despite risk of arrest

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Hong Kong protest leaders urge turnout for march, despite risk of arrest

Hong Kong's Chief Executive Carrie Lam answers questions from lawmakers at the Legislative Council in Hong Kong

HONG KONG (Reuters) - Pro-democracy leaders called on Hong Kong's citizens to join a Sunday anti-government march in spite of the risk of arrest, after police banned the rally which is seen as a test of the protest movement's strength following months of unrest.

Police declared the march illegal on Friday, citing concerns over public safety, and a court on Saturday said the destination of the march - the main railway interchange with mainland China - could be attacked and vandalised.

Hardcore protesters have in recent weeks targeted mainland Chinese businesses, daubing them in graffiti and at times setting fires, while mainland Chinese living in Hong Kong have begun to express fears for their own safety.

"We urge the Hong Kong people to ... assemble peacefully, march peacefully, in order to show the whole world we are still eager for the five demands," campaigner Leung Kwok-hung said on Saturday, vowing the demonstration would go ahead.

The demands include universal suffrage, an independent inquiry into police action against protesters, amnesty for those charged, and an end to describing protesters as rioters.

In the past, thousands of people have defied police and staged mass rallies without permission, often peaceful at the start but becoming violent at night. Protesters have hurled bricks and petrol bombs at police, who have responded with baton charges and volleys of tear gas on city streets.

Hong Kong's leader, Chief Executive Carrie Lam, has rejected the demands and on Saturday backed the use of force by police against protesters, amid criticism of heavy-handed tactics.

More than 90% of a 3,200-strong alumni at Hong Kong University on Saturday passed a motion calling for Lam's resignation, saying students had suffered "injuries from police brutality" while in custody.

Hong Kong has been relatively calm in the past two weeks after violent protests ignited by the introduction of colonial-era emergency laws.

A prayer sit-in was scheduled downtown on Saturday evening, while demonstrations on Friday were calm, with protesters forming a human chain along the metro network and many donning masks in defiance of a ban on covering faces at public rallies.


BRACING FOR VIOLENCE

Protesters are concerned that Beijing is eroding freedoms granted when Britain handed the city back to China in 1997.

China denies the accusation and has blamed foreign nations such as the United States and Britain for inciting the unrest.

The crisis in the Chinese-ruled city is the worst since the handover and poses the biggest popular challenge to China's President Xi Jinping since he took power.

The unrest was sparked by a now withdrawn bill which would have allowed extradition to mainland China for trial in Communist Party-controlled courts. It has since widened into a pro-democracy movement.

Hong Kong's metro, which daily moves an estimated 5 million people, has been struggling to return to normal services after being targeted by hardcore protesters, with stations set on fire and ticketing machines damaged.

Many protesters believe the metro has been closing stations to hinder their movement.

Hong Kong's subway operator, MTR Corp Ltd <0066.HK> said on Saturday that some services will not stop at Kowloon station, which is on the route of Sunday's march, and will again close the network early. Kowloon district has seen some of the worst violence in recent weeks.

The Hong Kong Monetary Authority, the city's de-facto central bank, said on Saturday that some cash machines will be out of service temporarily, owing to vandalism or to safety considerations.

Gambling authorities in the city, where horse-racing is a passion, have also said some betting shops will close on Sunday.



(Reporting by Tom Westbrook and Twinnie Siu; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan and Ros Russell)