Riot police used batons and pepper spray early on Tuesday to disperse crowds after clashes erupted when authorities tried to move illegal street vendors from a working-class district, the worst street violence since pro-democracy protests in late 2014.
Protesters hurled bricks at police as scuffles broke out, while other demonstrators set fire to rubbish bins in the streets of Mong Kok, a gritty neighborhood just across the harbor from the heart of the Asian financial center that was the site of some of the most heated pro-democracy protests.
Police fired two shots into the air, a police spokeswoman said, amid chaotic scenes. Rubbish bins, chunks of brick and broken bottles lay scattered along the world-famous Nathan Road shopping district on Tuesday morning. CNN reported that fires in the streets were still burning at dawn.
About 40 police vans were parked nearby. According to the South China Morning Post, police released a statement on Tuesday morning saying, “Police reiterate that any acts endangering public order and public safety will not be tolerated. … Police will take enforcement actions decisively … .”
Hong Kong's leader, Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, told reporters a mob had attacked police officers and journalists, and said the perpetrators would be prosecuted. More than 80 officers and four reporters were hurt, he said.
Police cars and public property were damaged, fires started and bricks and other objects thrown at police officers, including those already injured and lying on the ground, Leung said.
"I believe the public can see for themselves from TV news reports the seriousness of the situation. The (Hong Kong) government strongly condemns such violent acts. The police will apprehend the mobs and bring them to justice," Leung said.
Officials said they were investigating whether the violence had been organized in advance.
Acting District Commander Yau Siu-kei said 23 men and one woman were arrested on suspicion of assaulting and obstructing officers, resisting arrest and public disorder. The arrested were as young as 17 and as old as 70
Leung said that as of Tuesday morning, there were no plans to cancel the Lunar New Year fireworks display over Victoria Harbor, according to RTHK, a local broadcaster.
The clashes broke out after police moved in to clear unlicensed "hawkers," or vendors who sell local delicacies, trinkets and household goods from makeshift street stalls.
The hawkers have become a local tradition during the Lunar New Year holiday but this year authorities tried to remove them.
The hawkers were backed by activists who objected to the crackdown over concerns that Hong Kong's local culture is disappearing as Beijing tightens its hold on the semiautonomous city.
The hawkers quickly attracted a strong social media following at hashtag #fishballrevolution.
"To ensure public safety and public order, police took resolute actions, including using baton and pepper spray, to stop the unlawful violent acts," police said in a statement.
More than 100 confronted police in a tense standoff hours before on the Lunar New Year holiday, when most of the city is shut down, with rubbish bins and flower pots in flames nearby.
Police told Reuters they were awaiting orders about security plans for Tuesday night.
The underground train station for Mong Kok, a bustling shopping district, was closed temporarily.
A police statement said three men aged 27 to 35 were arrested for assaulting a police officer and obstructing police, while three police officers received hospital treatment. Broadcaster RTHK said later that 24 people had been arrested.
The narrow streets in and around Mong Kok were the scene of some of the most violent clashes during protests in late 2014 to demand greater democracy in the former British colony that returned to Beijing rule in 1997.
Hong Kong Indigenous, a group that is fielding a candidate in a Legislative Council by-election in a few weeks, was involved in the protest, the South China Morning Post reported.
Street tensions appeared to have eased off, but radical protesters and "localists" demanding greater Hong Kong autonomy have vowed to keep fighting even as China shows signs of tightening its grip.
The clashes in December 2014 came when authorities cleared the last of pro-democracy demonstrators from the streets after more than two months of occasionally violent protests that had posed one of the Beijing's greatest political challenges in decades.
Al Jazeera with wire services