HONG KONG - Hong Kong riot police fired tear gas at thousands of protesters, many wearing masks and reindeer horns, after scuffles in shopping malls and in a prime tourist district as anti-government rallies escalated into chaos on Christmas Eve.
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Protesters inside the malls had thrown umbrellas and other objects at police who responded by beating some demonstrators with batons, with one pointing his gun at the crowd, but not firing.
Police fired tear gas to disperse protesters who had occupied the main roads outside the malls and nearby luxury hotels, including the Peninsula.
Many families with children had congregated in the same area to view the Christmas lights along the promenade in the Tsim Sha Tsui East tourist district of Kowloon, the spectacular backdrop of Hong Kong island on the opposite side of the harbor.
The protests, now in their seventh month, have lost some of the scale and intensity of earlier violent confrontations. A peaceful rally earlier this month still drew 800,000 people, according to organizers, showing strong support for the movement.
Scores of black clad, mask wearing protesters chanted slogans including "Revive Hong Kong, revolution of our time," and "Hong Kong independence" as they roamed the malls.
"Lots of people are shopping so it's a good opportunity to spread the message and tell people what we are fighting for," said Ken, an 18-year-old student.
"We fight for freedom, we fight for our future."
At one mall in the teeming Mong Kok district, also on the Kowloon peninsula, police used pepper spray to disperse some protesters, according to Cable television.
Some protesters were planning to march in Tsim Sha Tsui and count down to Christmas, according to notices on social media.
The Civil Human Rights Front, which has organized some of the biggest marches involving more than a million people, has applied to stage another march on New Year's Day.
Police have arrested more than 6,000 people since the protests escalated in June, including a large number during a protracted, violent siege at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University in mid-November.
Many Hong Kong residents are angry at what they see as Beijing's meddling in the freedoms promised to the former British colony when it returned to Chinese rule in 1997.
China denies interfering and says it is committed to the "one country, two systems" formula put in place at that time and has blamed foreign forces for fomenting unrest.
(Reporting by Clare Jim, Marius Zaharia, Twinnie Siu, Mari Saito and James Pomfret; writing by Farah Master; editing by Lincoln Feast and Nick Macfie)