HONG KONG, Dec 26 (Reuters) - Hundreds of protesters marched through festive Hong Kong shopping malls on Thursday, aiming to disrupt business in the Asian financial hub for a third day over the Christmas holidays, with riot police deployed in the event of unrest.
The "shopping protests" have targeted malls across the Chinese-ruled city since Christmas Eve, turning violent at times with police firing tear gas to disperse demonstrators in bustling commercial areas filled with shoppers and tourists.
The turnout on Thursday was smaller than on the previous two days, but dozens of riot police patrolled the outskirts of shopping centers on the Kowloon peninsula and in the rural New Territories. Some officers entered the malls to observe chanting black-clad protesters.
Protests started in Hong Kong more than six months ago in response to a now-withdrawn bill that would have allowed extraditions to mainland China, where courts are controlled by the Communist Party.
They have since evolved into a broader pro-democracy movement, and became more confrontational over the festive season. Earlier in December, after pro-democracy candidates overwhelmingly won district council elections, they had been largely peaceful
On Thursday, police detained several people at a mall in rural Tai Po, located far north of the city's financial center earlier on Thursday, public broadcaster RTHK said.
Some restaurants and stores pulled down their shutters in the malls as protesters, some wearing balaclavas and carrying black flags, marched by. At some dining outlets protesters stuck up stickers and posters which read "Free Hong Kong, revolution now."
Demonstrators are angry at what they perceive as increased meddling by Beijing in the freedoms promised to the former British colony when it returned to Chinese rule in 1997. China denies interfering, saying it is committed to the "one country, two systems" formula put in place at that time, and blames foreign forces for fomenting unrest.
Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam condemned the protesters in a Facebook post on Wednesday stating that many Hong Kongers and tourists were disappointed that their "Christmas Eve celebrations have been ruined."
"Such illegal acts have not only dampened the festive mood but also adversely affected local businesses.
The government, in a separate statement on Thursday, criticized "unprecedented violence" and vandalism committed by some protesters, and said that, despite the months of social unrest, freedoms and human rights remained a top priority.
(Reporting by Joyce Zhou and Twinnie Siu; Writing by Farah Master; editing by John Stonestreet)