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Hong Kong protesters trample Chinese flag, set street fires

HONG KONG (AP) — Protesters in Hong Kong trampled a Chinese flag, vandalized two subway stations and set at least two street fires on Sunday, as pro-democracy demonstrations took a violent turn once again.

The day's action began peacefully, as protesters filled a shopping mall and, in a new twist, folded paper "origami" cranes that they tied onto a large rigging they assembled in the mall in the outlying Shatin district.

Some put a Chinese flag on the floor and took turns running over it, before defacing it and putting it in a dumpster outside, which they then pushed into a nearby river. Hong Kong's pro-democracy protests, now in their fourth month, have often descended into violence late in the day and at night. A hardcore group of protesters says the extreme actions are needed to get the government's attention. On Saturday, police used tear gas and rubber rounds against protesters who threw gasoline bombs toward them and set fires in streets.

As Sunday's protest at Shatin New Town Plaza wound down, some protesters attacked a subway station connected to the mall. They jumped up to smash overhead surveillance cameras, used hammers to knock ticket sensors off gates and spray-painted and broke the screens of ticket machines, using umbrellas to shield their identities.

Riot police arrived following the attack and guarded the station after it was closed, with a metal grill pulled down to block entry. Outside, protesters built a barricade across a street near the mall, piled what appeared to be palm fronds on top and set them on fire.

Police fired tear gas as they tried to advance on the protesters, who took positions behind a wall of handheld umbrellas before ending their demonstration. Earlier, the protesters at the mall chanted slogans and sang a song that has become their anthem, backed by a small group playing on woodwind and brass instruments through their masks. Many lined the balustrades of the three higher floors overlooking where others gathered in the wide space below.

A series of small skirmishes broke out Sunday night. Protesters vandalized the Kwai Fong subway station, which was then closed. They also set a street fire in the city's Mong Kok area that firefighters put out.

Hong Kong's leader, Chief Executive Carrie Lam, has agreed to withdraw an extradition bill that sparked the protests in early June. But the anti-government protesters are pressing other demands, including fully democratic elections in the semiautonomous Chinese territory and an independent investigation of complaints about police violence during earlier demonstrations.

Protesters say Beijing and Lam's government are eroding the "high degree of autonomy" and Western-style civil liberties promised to the former British colony when it was returned to China in 1997. The unending protests are an embarrassment for China's Communist Party ahead of Oct. 1 celebrations of its 70th anniversary in power. Hong Kong's government has canceled a fireworks display that day, citing concern for public safety.

On Sunday, transit authorities closed two stations on the airport express train to guard against a possible disruption of transportation to the transportation hub, but none materialized. Passengers boarding the train were told via onboard announcements that it would make fewer stops than usual, with no mention of the protests. Orange tape blocked the turnstiles at the empty Kowloon station, and police clutching riot helmets greeted arriving passengers at the Hong Kong terminus.

Some airport bus routes were also suspended. Passengers were advised to leave sufficient time to reach the airport.

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