Anti-government protesters trying to ram their way into Hong Kong's parliament battled police armed with pepper spray Monday as the territory marked the anniversary of its handover to China.
The angry scenes ramped up tensions in the international financial hub, which has been shaken by historic demonstrations in the past three weeks -- driven by demands for the withdrawal of a bill that would allow extraditions to the Chinese mainland.
Democracy activists kicked off another large march through the city on Monday afternoon.
But that rally was overshadowed by small groups of mainly young, masked protesters who had seized three key thoroughfares in the morning, sparking renewed clashes with police after two weeks of relative calm.
They smashed windows at the city's legislature and tried to force their way into the building by ramming a metal cart through reinforced glass doors.
Riot police inside the building wore gas masks as they squirted pepper spray at protesters, who unfurled umbrellas to shield themselves.
Some democratic lawmakers tried to intervene but had little luck persuading the protesters to withdraw.
- Sliding freedoms -
The huge rallies over the last three weeks are the latest expression of growing fears that China is stamping down on the city's freedoms and culture with the help of the finance hub's pro-Beijing leaders.
Benny, a 20-year-old student who gave only one name, said protesters had been prodded into action by the obduracy of the city's unelected leaders.
"This isn't what we want, the government forced us to express (our views) this way," he told AFP.
But the increasingly hardline tactics from some protesters have alienated others, with a large counter rally in support of the police taking place on Sunday.
Although Hong Kong returned from British to Chinese rule on July 1, 1997, it is still administered separately under an arrangement known as "one country, two systems".
The city enjoys rights and liberties unseen on the autocratic mainland, but many residents fear Beijing is already reneging on that deal.
- March underway -
Activists have organised a march every handover anniversary, calling for greater democratic freedoms -- such as the right to elect the city's leader.
They have mustered large crowds in recent years -- including a two-month occupation of parts of the city centre in 2014 -- but have failed to win any concessions from Beijing.
"When I heard that there are clashes outside (parliament), I was very worried," Amy Siu, a 37-year-old accountant taking part in the rally, told AFP. "I'm worried about the youngsters' safety. I hope they can be rational."
"I would not blame the young people, I blame the government," added an 80-year-old protester who gave his surname Yeung.
This year's rally, which will end at the parliament building, is framed by unprecedented anti-government protests of the past three weeks that have drawn millions, with the public angry over police use of tear gas and rubber bullets.
The spark for the current wave of protests was an attempt by chief executive Carrie Lam to pass the Beijing-backed extradition law, which she has now postponed following the public backlash.
The demonstrations have since morphed into a wider movement against Lam's administration and Beijing.
- Champagne toasts & flags -
Lam -- who has kept out of the public eye since her climbdown and has record low approval ratings -- attended a flag-raising ceremony early Monday, marking the moment the city returned to Chinese ownership 22 years ago.
But she and other dignitaries watched from indoors due to "inclement weather" -- the first time in the ceremony's history.
Her speech stuck to the conciliatory tone she has used in recent weeks.
"What happened in recent months has caused conflicts and disputes between the government and residents," Lam said. "It has made me fully understand that as a politician, I need to be aware and accurately grasp the feelings of the people."
She then raised a champagne toast alongside cabinet officials and two of her predecessors.
During clashes outside the venue at least one woman was seen bleeding from a head wound and officers made multiple arrests.
Some protesters hurled eggs at police, who later said 13 officers were also sent to hospital after being doused by an "unknown liquid".
Activists, who are mainly young students, have vowed to keep up their civil disobedience campaign.
"Whatever happens we won't lose heart," Jason Chan, a 22-year-old accountant added. "Resistance is not a matter of a day or a week, it is long term."