HONG KONG - Thousands of people streamed into a park in central Hong Kong on Thursday evening for a candlelit vigil to mark the 26th anniversary of China's Tiananmen Square crackdown, with the city deeply divided ahead of a vote on how to choose its next leader.
Hong Kong is the only location on Chinese soil to see a major commemoration, with residents gathering in Victoria Park to mark the military's brutal crushing of pro-democracy protests in central Beijing in 1989.
Hundreds - by some estimates more than a thousand - died after the Communist Party sent tanks to crush demonstrations at the square in the heart of Beijing, where student-led protesters had staged a peaceful seven-week sit-in to demand democratic reforms.
By early evening in Hong Kong, several football pitches were filled with crowds sitting on the ground and listening to songs and speeches, while leading pro-democracy groups bid for attention outside in a cacophony of slogans.
"This is an ongoing struggle for justice," said Richard Tsoi of the Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China, which organises the vigil.
He predicted 150,000 would come.
The US called for "an official accounting of the victims" of the 1989 crackdown Thursday, as well as the release from prison of those serving Tiananmen-related sentences.
The State Department also urged a halt to the harassment and detention of those who want to commemorate the anniversary.
US-based group Chinese Human Rights Defenders said state security had detained dozens of activists in the Chinese provinces of Shaanxi and Hunan ahead of this year's anniversary.
Zhang Xianling, 77, whose then 19-year-old son was killed during the crackdown, said she visited his grave site in Beijing Thursday, where dozens of plainclothes security staff stood watching.
More than seven security officers remain near her apartment, with two guarding her door, she told AFP.
"Their main purpose is to stop me receiving interviews... and visiting areas deemed sensitive, such as Tiananmen Square," she said.
The Hong Kong vigil comes as tensions are high just two weeks ahead of a vote on the government's controversial election roadmap.
It also follows huge pro-democracy protests that paralysed parts of the city for months last year.
The election proposal goes before the legislature on June 17 and lays out a plan for the first ever public vote for Hong Kong's chief executive.
It sticks to a stipulation from Beijing that candidates must be screened, a ruling that triggered last year's street rallies.
Campaigners call the proposal "fake democracy", and opposition lawmakers have pledged to vote it down.
Pro-Beijing groups - who support the Hong Kong government's election package - said they would also protest Thursday and there were verbal clashes between rival groups near Victoria Park on Thursday afternoon.
But there is also division within the pro-democracy camp.
Hong Kong University's student union, which has taken part in all previous June 4 vigils and took a leading role in last year's demonstrations, held an alternative smaller vigil on its campus.
Organisers said they did not agree with the Alliance's premise that democratisation of China should be the prerequisite for democracy in Hong Kong.
"We would like to provide a different event so we can discuss Hong Kong's future as Hong Kong people," said union president Billy Fung.
Some there said the mass rallies of last year had led to a more "localist" view of Hong Kong's political future.
"Lots of people (are) not identifying themselves as Chinese now," said 19-year-old student Tiffany Wong.
But those at the Victoria Park vigil urged unity.
"This year I feel it's especially important to come out because people are saying the movement is marginalised or shrinking. We need to show that people's support is strong, regardless (of) who is leading," Walter Wong, 53, told AFP.
Hong Kong is largely self-governed and has far greater civil liberties than on the mainland, where public discussion of Tiananmen is forbidden.