HONG KONG — Police on Saturday fired tear gas and projectiles in a crowded Hong Kong neighborhood after tens of thousands of defiant protesters gathered to denounce apparent pro-Beijing mobs that went on a violent rampage last weekend.

The protest — in the residential neighborhood of Yuen Long in Hong Kong’s New Territories, close to the border with mainland China — was not authorized by police, who cited fears of violence. Clashes left at least 17 people injured.

Yuen Long was the scene of a brazen mob attack on July 21 against anti-government protesters returning from a largely peaceful march. The mobs, which were armed with sticks and batons and carried Chinese flags, are said to be linked to organized crime syndicates known as triads.

Many Hong Kong residents were enraged by the delayed response from police, who did not arrive on the scene for nearly 40 minutes.

More than 1,000 protesters converged on the city's airport July 26, with many chanting “Free Hong Kong,” as weeks of anti-government unrest continued. (Reuters)

Despite the authorities’ warnings, protesters showed up in the neighborhood on Saturday, some armed with shields, umbrellas and wearing body armor.

Protesters were seen digging up bricks from sidewalks, which they threw at riot police, and ripping iron poles off railings and removing fencing to build barricades. 

“We are all here to give a message, to tell those who attacked us loud and clear that we are not scared of them,” said Yam, a 19-year old protester, who only gave his last name, citing the illegality of the demonstration. “Nothing, nothing will stop us from protesting for our rights.”

Saturday marked the eighth consecutive week of massive demonstrations in Hong Kong, increasingly marred by violence that is raising global concern. The upheaval was sparked by an unpopular extradition bill that would allow fugitives to be sent to China and has continued as the government declined to fully withdraw the proposals.

But the crowd’s anger on Saturday was directed at police and the Hong Kong government for their handling of the events of the past weeks — specifically the police’s slow response to the mob violence. More than 42,000 emergency calls were made to police, who arrived only after the mob had left. Forty-five people were injured, some seriously.

Police blamed their slow response on protests happening in central Hong Kong. They arrested six people involved with the mob violence, but only a day later.

On Saturday, crowds jammed the streets and sidewalks, making it difficult to move at some points. Along the march route, apartment residents watched the crowds below from the roofs of their buildings. A banner hanging from one building cursed the Hong Kong police. Groups shouted expletives at and jeered officers.

Protesters also held a mock funeral for Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam and Police Commissioner Stephen Lo. 

Another target of protesters’ ire was Junius Ho, a pro-Beijing lawmaker from Yuen Long, who appeared in a video that allegedly showed him shaking hands and congratulating men who took part in the mob violence. Earlier in the week, a group trashed his office and defaced his mother’s grave. 

Before sundown, there were tense standoffs at multiple points across the neighborhood. Protesters blocked a police van from passing, spray-painting it and smashing the windows. Riot police responded with multiple canisters of tear gas, sending a crowd that included elderly women scrambling down an overpass. Clouds of tear gas were so thick that it wafted into high-rise residential apartments. 

Riot police and protesters also clashed around a village where Sunday’s mob had reportedly retreated. 

Most of the demonstrators had cleared the area by 9 p.m., leaving just a small group of protesters and riot police locked in a brawl at the Yuen Long railway station.

Protesters sprayed multiple fire extinguishers at officers and doused them using water hoses. Riot police surged into the station and tackled demonstrators, leaving trails of blood.

Hong Kong police said in a later statement that protesters could be arrested if they didn’t leave and warned of jail terms for up to five years for participation in an unauthorized assembly. There were no immediate details of arrests. 

Yoho Mall, a large shopping complex connected to the Yuen Long subway station, remained open Saturday, but most shops were shuttered ahead of the march. Protesters retreating from police gathered in groups inside the mall, which provided a welcome reprieve from the heat and humidity.

Since the demonstration was illegal, protesters masked their participation creatively — alleging they were hiking through the neighborhood, playing the popular Pokémon GO mobile phone game or sampling local specialty snacks. 

“Hong Kong is our home, it is our freedom to go everywhere. I’m just here exercising my rights,” said 26-year-old Chen, who turned up with seven friends. She wanted to send a signal of support to protesters and felt “saddened and shocked” by the mob attacks. 

“We can’t rely on the police, so we have to rely on each other. That’s why everyone is here, to show support for each other,” she added. 

Dissent in Hong Kong has also spread among the tens of thousands of civil servants, aviation workers and others. On Friday, a protest was held at Hong Kong’s airport, facilitated by groups including the airport workers, airline workers and other aviation staff.