Hong Kong police respond to more menacing mob attacks by bringing out lethal anti-riot weapons

A police officer with a submachine gun during a clash with protesters on Nathan Road in Tsim Sha Tsui.
PHOTO: South China Morning Post

Hong Kong police dealing with anti-government protests have been armed with higher-level, lethal rifles in recent days, as radical protesters have stepped up their violence and use of weapons.

The mobs occupying universities have not only hurled bricks, metal poles and corrosive acid at police, but also used large quantities of petrol bombs, bows and arrows, as well as catapults.

An officer was pierced in the calf by an arrow outside Polytechnic University on Sunday. Another policeman was hit by a metal ball.

A makeshift catapult is used to rain petrol bombs and other projectiles on police.  PHOTO: South China Morning Post

The mob rained petrol bombs on police, and even set an armoured riot-control truck ablaze. When a vehicle tried ramming into a group of officers, police responded by firing a live round.

Officers have been seen drawing their rifles and submachine guns. The Post was told that snipers and ground squad members from the elite group - Special Duties Unit (SDU) - have been deployed too.

When the radicals began using bows and arrows, regional commander of Kowloon West, Michael Cheuk Hau-yip, noted that these were long-range weapons and warned them not to test police.

"If we have to respond, I believe the only option will be to use deadly weapons, because arrows are lethal," he said.

On Tuesday, Senior Superintendent Wong Wai-shun said the force would rely on appropriate weapons needed to curb the violence.

Cheuk Hau-yip, regional commander of Kowloon West speaks at a press conference. ​​​​​PHOTO: South China Morning Post

WHAT WEAPONS HAVE POLICE USED MOST?

Since the protests broke out on June 9, the Post was told that police have fired at least 11,100 rounds of tear gas, more than 6,200 rubber bullets, and about 1,400 sponge grenades and beanbags rounds to disperse crowds and knock rioters down.

As of Sunday, police have fired 19 live rounds, hitting three students in the chest, thigh and abdomen respectively.

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A common sight at the front line are the 38mm-calibre Federal Riot Guns, nicknamed "bigmouth guns", used to fire tear gas canisters. The American-made riot weapons have an effective range of up to 70 metres.

Other weapons used regularly are the pepper ball launcher Tippmann 98 Custom Platinum Basic, with a range of over 45 metres, and the Remington 870 shotgun, which can be loaded with beanbag rounds and rubber bullets.

WHICH SELDOM SEEN WEAPONS WITH LIVE ROUNDS ARE POLICE USING NOW?

Officers have begun drawing Colt AR-15 semi-automatic rifles at violent mobs. The American-made weapon can be loaded with 20 5.56×45mm rounds and is a standard weapon of Police Tactical Unit and Airport Security Unit officers. It can only be fired with approval, and is used as a last resort in situations which are assessed to be serious enough to be uncontrollable or result in severe casualties. The rifle has an effective firing range of 550 metres.

An officer with a Sig Sauer 516 rifle. PHOTO: South China Morning Post

Another weapon now being used is the Sig Sauer 516 multi-calibre assault rifle with detachable magazines that can hold 30 rounds. It features a birdcage flash hider and is used by officers from prime squads - the Counter Terrorism Response Unit and SDU.

Submachine guns are also being deployed at protest front lines now. The Heckler & Koch MP5 and Sig Sauer MPX can be loaded with up to 30 rounds per magazine, and have a firing range of 400 metres. These are standard issue for the Airport Security Unit, Railway Response Team and Emergency Unit.

IS IT APPROPRIATE FOR THE FORCE TO CARRY LETHAL WEAPONS?

Security consultant and former police superintendent Clement Lai Ka-chi, who helped set up the force's Counter Terrorism Response Unit, said the deadliness of the weapons now being deployed depends on the type of bullets used, even for live rounds. In his view, police are responding with an "appropriate and suitable level of force" to the lethal weapons used by radicals.

Although some members of the public might perceive this as police increasing their use of force, Lai said this was still far from an "extreme level" of response.

A radical at Chinese University wields a bow and arrow. PHOTO: South China Morning Post

He said the so-called archers in the mob were much more dangerous than armed police at the front line. "The officers underwent long hours of firearms training. But the kids? They practised archery on campus a few times, then called themselves archers and walked on the streets with their bows and arrows," he said.

Pointing out that an arrow can travel as far as 80 metres, he said it is capable of hurting passers-by or reporters at the scene, if an untrained archer missed his intended target.

"Police must use appropriate firearms with a long shooting range to stop the archery. You can't use short-range weapons such as batons, pepper spray or revolvers in this situation. But police will never order an officer to shoot to kill."

WHAT OTHER OPTIONS DO OFFICERS HAVE?

Lai advised radicals not to underestimate the force's ability to handle the unrest just because police have been restrained so far.

"Honestly, police have been very lenient," he said. "They have a lot of options, in terms of tactics and weapons - way more than you can imagine. But they have only used the tip of the iceberg of what is available to them. The force hopes the mob will surrender and avoid mass casualties."

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Although the force's Mercedes-Benz Unimog U5000 armoured vehicle has often been seen at the front lines, it has yet to reveal its full capability - the vehicle's exterior can be electrified to shock anyone who touches it, but this function has so far not been deployed.

Lai said nobody should doubt police, especially those in the elite units, who are well-trained to deal with riots. He cited their handling of the refugee camp riots in the 1980s and 1990s as examples of their capability.

He said he believed police had not unleashed the full force of what they could do, and this reflected their measured response to the protests all this time.

"If the force had used in June every weapon and strategy available to it for extreme deterrence, the unrest would not have continued and developed to the current state," Lai said.

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.